Michelle Lukacs grew up in Mequon and worked as a teacher in Milwaukee. Then she was a teacher and guidance counselor in Jefferson. She got a school principal’s license through a program at Edgewood College in Madison.
She moved back to Milwaukee and decided to open a school as part of the publicly funded private school voucher program. She called it Atlas Preparatory Academy because she liked the image of Atlas holding the whole world up and because it was the name of a refrigeration company her husband owns.
On the first day of classes in September 2001, Atlas had 23 students in leased space in an old school building at 2911 S. 32nd St.
This September, Atlas had 814 students, a growth of 3,439% over eight years. It now uses three buildings on the south side and has grown, grade by grade, to be a full kindergarten through 12th-grade program.
Atlas’ growth is explosive, even within the continually growing, nationally significant voucher program. Voucher enrollment over the same period has roughly doubled from 10,882 in September 2001 to 21,062 this fall.
The Atlas story underscores an interesting trend: The number of voucher schools in recent years has leveled off, and this year, fell significantly. But the total number of students using vouchers to attend private schools in the city has gone up, and a few schools have become particular powerhouses, at least when it comes to enrollment.
This year, there are four voucher schools with more than 750 students, which puts them among the largest schools in Milwaukee. St. Anthony School, in three buildings on the near south side, added a ninth grade this year and reported 1,277 voucher students. Messmer High School and Messmer Preparatory on the north side had 979 voucher students. And Greater Holy Temple Christian Academy on the northwest side had 751 (it had 78 six years ago).
There are 111 schools receiving up to $6,442 per student from the state this year as part of the voucher program. That is down from 127 a year ago (and the payments are down from $6,607). Only two new schools, with 21 voucher students between them, joined the program this year, as a result of creation of a new board that played a stern role as gatekeeper to allowing start-up schools to get voucher money.
And 18 schools that were on the voucher roster a year ago were not there. It’s hard to get sentimental looking at the list. Most were small or weak. Some could not meet the tightened requirements of state law, including rules being applied full force now that voucher schools get accredited by independent organizations.
What’s going on in the voucher movement may well be a case of addition by subtraction – a lot of the schools from several years ago that were weak, poorly run or just plain bad have disappeared. Tightened laws, tightened regulations and more public scrutiny have clearly had positive effects.
Frankly, there are still a few schools on the list that can leave you wondering. But overall, based on visits to many schools over the years and close attention to trends, I can see more positives now, and some of the schools are or are moving toward becoming significant educational assets to the city.
Saying that comes with a big caveat: It’s impossible to say that for sure now. Voucher schools are not required to release standardized test results, although that will change soon, thanks to legislation passed in June. For years, the impact of the program as a whole went unstudied. An extensive five-year study is under way, led by researchers from the University of Arkansas, and the results from the first two years generally painted a picture of not much difference in academic achievement between students in the voucher schools and those in Milwaukee Public Schools.
But you’ve got to respect the intensity of effort and the level of dedication of people involved in schools such as the three HOPE Lutheran schools and St. Marcus Lutheran on the north side, the huge St. Anthony operation, or Messmer, the longtime standard-bearer for voucher schools.
And maybe, after 20 years of controversy and battling and some (deserved) bad publicity over specific schools and accountability problems, things are looking sunnier for the voucher program.
“The market is working,” said Terry Brown, who heads St. Anthony. “It’s not a perfect market,” but over time many bad schools have been weeded out.
The thriving Atlas is an exception in the voucher program in that it is not religious – more than 80% of voucher schools have definite religious identities – and because it does not have much in the way of outside financial support.
Why has the school grown so fast? Lukacs says it is the safe atmosphere and the diverse student body – overall, it is roughly a third Latino, a third African-American and a third Hmong.
The school has benefited from effective word-of-mouth marketing. In at least some Hmong and Latino communities, momentum to enroll built upon some people leading the way.
Academically, it doesn’t appear Atlas is doing anything dramatically different than a lot of MPS schools. Its facilities certainly aren’t fancy. Its teachers are licensed, and it has been accredited by the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Association. But other schools – in MPS, in the charter program, in the voucher program – can point to similar qualities.
Lukacs declined to release test scores and said when they come out, starting next year, they will show there are kids doing very well at the school – and kids who are not. The school is focusing on improving its reading programs, she said. MPS says the same.
Maybe the key to Atlas’ rise is as simple as the fact that hundreds of parents have chosen to send their children there, and Wisconsin law makes it possible for them to do that on the same basis as picking a public school. This is the choice program, after all.
What Milwaukee shows
In the long run, Milwaukee appears to be demonstrating for the nation two things about school choice:
- Parents like it. Surveys over the years have shown parents are generally happy with the schools they select for their kids. And, in large numbers, they certainly have shown an eagerness to use the right to choose.
- But parent choice alone is not enough to drive quality. Howard Fuller, the most prominent supporter of the program, came to that conclusion himself and changed his position substantially in recent years when it came to regulation. In ways that deal both with finances and education, oversight is needed and tools have to exist to respond to problems. Now, what about the third thing you’d really like to see demonstrated – great results for kids? Maybe the forecast for that is improving. But it’s still too unspecific to say that. Maybe that will be clearer in three or four years.
“The whole focus has to be on quality,” Fuller said. Comparing the current voucher schools overall with those five years ago, Fuller said, “It’s probably true that the total roster is better. But we have a huge amount of work to do.”
A veteran education reporter, Alan J. Borsuk is a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. He can be reached at email@example.com.