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Vouchers: Not for Low-Income Only
Special Section on Vouchers

Voucher proposals are routinely portrayed as a way to give low-income Blacks and Latinos the same chance as middle-class whites to choose a private school. Yet voucher proponents across the political spectrum -- from right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan to Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee John Norquist -- have made no secret of their goal to institute vouchers for all children.


In an interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 4, 1998, Norquist said he would begin aggressively lobbying state officials to raise or phase out the income cap on vouchers. Currently, vouchers are limited to the families at or below 175% of the poverty level.

Norquist said the cap is unfair to middle-class families. "As choice expands, the dissatisfaction with this income limit is going to become very acute," he said.

In an editorial a few days later, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, "Let's see if we got this right. Previously targeting the poor was supposed to clear up an injustice. Now such targeting introduces an injustice?"

Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milw), the African-American legislator who first pushed for Milwaukee's voucher program in 1990, said she wasn't surprised by Norquist's comment. "There are people in that coalition [that supported vouchers] who never intended to help low-income children," she told the Journal Sentinel.

Professor John Witte of the University of Wisconsin-Madison notes that an expanded voucher program would predominantly serve affluent white families. Using data from the 1990 Census, Witte reports that 33% of public school students in Milwaukee were white, while over 84% of private school students were white. While the average household income of families in the public schools was $25,000, the average income of private school families was 69% higher, or $42,500.

Witte argues that "those benefiting most by an expanded program would not be poor families seeking an alternative they now cannot afford, but rather white, upper-middle class families who probably would have attended private schools anyway."