The last line of the Sentinel article added one final bullet point, almost as an afterthought. The day before, Thompson had signed a “parental choice” program which would soon allow 930 Milwaukee students to attend a private, non-sectarian school for free.
In the ensuing 28 years, Milwaukee’s school choice program has been fiercely debated both statewide and nationally. In 1995, the voucher program was extended to private, religious schools; during Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure, vouchers have been expanded statewide, drawing harsh criticism from Democrats sympathetic to teachers’ unions.
In a story by the Wisconsin State Journal’s Molly Beck on Sunday, seven of the top nine Democratic candidates said they would eliminate all four private school voucher programs in Wisconsin, with most vowing to phase the program out over a period of time.
Clearly, the days of bipartisan support for choice are a remnant of history. The program that passed in 1990 was part of a bill introduced by Democrats (choice was most notably championed by Milwaukee Assemblywoman Annette “Polly” Williams) and passed each Democrat-controlled house of the Legislature overwhelmingly (26-7 in the Senate, 86-8 in the Assembly.)
At the time, Williams thought the program would help low-income blacks break free from the paternalistic liberals who wanted to run their lives. “At some point, we want to make our own decisions, whether our friends like it or not,” said Williams, who the Wisconsin chair for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988.
But now, promising to end school choice in Wisconsin has become to state Democrats what Donald’s Trump’s Mexican border wall became to Republicans — an impossible task that nonetheless allows a candidate to signal false bravado in order to pacify the party’s base.