Communication Currents

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The Creator of the First School Voucher Program Sought to Address Racial Disparities in Public Schooling

March 28, 2022
Critical and Cultural Studies

Public school voucher systems use tax dollars to provide funds to parents, who then send their children to private schools. Today, many proponents of school choice are conservatives who favor school voucher programs as a way to privatize public education and give parents the ability to send children to private schools, including religious schools. However, the first school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), actually originated as a way to address racial inequities. In a recent article published in NCA’s Quarterly Journal of Speech, Kelly Jensen analyzes the discourse of Wisconsin State Representative Polly Williams, a Black woman and creator of the MPCP. 

Public Education in Milwaukee 

In the mid-20th century, white residents of Milwaukee “fled” from the city to the suburbs, making Milwaukee’s central district predominantly Black. In the article, Jensen documents how Black activists began to call attention to the segregation of Milwaukee’s public school system in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1976, a federal judge issued a desegregation mandate. However, the mandate was largely ineffective. In the 1980s, Black activists in Milwaukee who were dissatisfied with the city’s efforts to desegregate schools began pushing for community control of schools. In 1989, Democratic Wisconsin state representative Polly Williams cultivated an unlikely alliance with Republican Governor Tommy Thompson to pass the MPCP, which allowed low-income children in Milwaukee to attend non-religious private schools.  


An ideograph is a term, such as “freedom” or “choice,” that stands in for a larger ideological message. According to Jensen, ideographs can help unify the behavior of groups of people and help them unite behind a shared vision. Jensen examines how Williams deployed the ideograph of “choice,” using the themes of “agency,” “justice,” and “self-determination,” in public statements between 1980 and 1996.  


Williams deployed “agency” to argue that “choice” presented parents with the option to “choose a school in their neighborhood.” Jensen writes that for Williams, this choice was centered around Black parents having the ability to choose which school their children would attend. For example, Williams said that “[through the MCPC] we say to parents, let’s see what you can do, let’s see if you can do better than the state superintendent and find a school that will educate your children.” According to Jensen, because Williams felt that her constituents had been denied choice, providing choice meant increasing their agency in their children’s education. 

Jensen argues that Williams’s rhetoric was similar to conservative arguments for voucher and school choice programs but must be understood within the context of Milwaukee’s history. For Williams, desegregation efforts represented a lack of choice, and of agency, for Black parents: “[Black students] were forced to attend schools not of their choosing.” Jensen argues that Williams’s use of the word “forced” contrasted with choice to demonstrate the lack of agency that her constituents had. 


According to Jensen, Williams used the theme of “justice” to advocate for policies that would create equality between Black and white parents. For example, Williams viewed forced bussing policies as unjust because they created “diversity for [white] children,” while not protecting the well-being of Black children because Black children were “put in ‘cages’- put on buses. Their [white] kids are safe and secure in their own environments with their mommies and daddies.” Williams also characterized white schools as “hostile environments.” Jensen writes that “Williams’s discourse revealed the injustice of a system that did not provide the option to choose a neighborhood school to all families equally.”

Jensen places the use of justice in Williams’s local context. Debates over school choice are often positioned as liberals favoring public schooling and arguing that school choice erodes public education, while conservatives favor privatization of schooling and choice in schooling. In contrast, Jensen says that Williams disrupted these typical arguments by promoting the MPCP as a way to address racial inequities within the public school system. 


Finally, Williams associated choice with “self-determination” and local control over schooling for the Black community of Milwaukee. Jensen writes that Williams felt that school integration efforts were led by “basically white people,” including some Black people who “would agree with what white folks wanted for black people.” Williams argued that choice required that Black people be given control over their community—that decisions needed to be made by the Black community instead of by white liberals: “[w]e have to be saved from our saviors … our liberal friends have built their whole lives around taking care of us and they still want to feed us with Pablum. At some point we want real food. We want to make our own decisions whether our liberal friends like it or not.” 

Jensen argues that Williams’s version of choice differs from conservative notions of school choice that focus on the individual. Instead, Williams’s idea of choice is centered on the Black community and the impacts of racist policies on the community. According to Jensen, Williams argued that the Milwaukee public school system had “inflicted” “burdens and hardships” on “Black children and their parents within this Community [sic]” through ineffective desegregation efforts. Williams also referenced constituent complaints regarding the bussing program and its negative effects on Black students. Jensen writes that Williams gave voice to the Black community’s widespread concerns about how the public school system had failed them. 


Jensen concludes that Williams’s use of choice differed from the use of choice by conservative school advocates because her perspective was shaped by the experience of the Black community in Milwaukee. In this context, choice represented freedom from a public school system that many felt had instituted racist and oppressive policies. According to Jensen, Williams ultimately felt that the MPCP school voucher program was “hijacked” by the interests of the white middle class and was transformed to allow the use of public funds by middle-class students in primarily religious schools. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Kelly Jensen (2021): Localized ideographs in education rhetoric: Polly Williams and a justice-driven ideology of choice, Quarterly Journal of Speech, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2021.1945133

About the author (s)

Kelly Jensen

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ph.D. Candidate and Lecturer, Department of Communication Arts

Kelly Jensen