One day in May, toward the end of the school year, Milwaukee grandmothers Gail Hicks and Marva Herndon loaded up Herndon's RV with a cooler full of water bottles and took two reporters and a state legislator on a tour of Milwaukee voucher schools. [Editors' Note: This article was first published in 2014; we're reposting it online in response to numerous requests.]
Herndon and Hicks formed a group called Women Committed to an Informed Community, also known as the "mad grandmas," to bring attention to the voucher schools popping up all over the largely African American north side of Milwaukee in strip malls, rundown office buildings, old car dealerships, and abandoned factories.
"We are talking about the schools that fall under the category of LifeSkills Academy," says Hicks, referring to a Milwaukee voucher school that made headlines last year when the couple that owned it fled to Florida, taking with them millions in state education funds and leaving sixty-six students suddenly stranded, with no school.
Many of the schools Herndon and Hicks are concerned about are religious. But "we are not talking about schools associated with long-established churches," Hicks says.
In racially divided Milwaukee, most of the mainline parochial schools that take voucher students are run by Catholic and Protestant churches on the largely Hispanic south side, Herndon explains.
"On the north side, it's just loaded with fly-by-night, hole-in-the-wall schools, gas station schools," Herndon says.
Herndon and Hicks said they started calling some of these schools, with names like Daughters of the Father, and asking them about their religious affiliation.
"One of the buzzwords in our community is Christian Academy of . . . whatever," says Hicks. "We started calling and asking these places, ‘Which denomination are you?' They would answer, ‘Oh, we're no particular denomination. We just talk about the bible.' "
"So then we'd ask, ‘Which bible? The King James Bible?' And they'd say, ‘No, we just talk about biblical principles. We don't use any particular bible,' " says Hicks. "Religion is their selling point, but they have no affiliation."
When she was in her early twenties, Hicks made friends, through the civil rights movement, with Polly Williams. Williams went on to become the public face of the national school-choice movement in the 1990s. Along with then-governor Tommy Thompson, she helped create the Milwaukee Parental Choice program while representing her largely African-American Milwaukee district in the state legislature.
"She had a different perspective," Hicks says of Williams. "She wanted African American kids to be able to go to parochial schools, and to have the public funds follow them. But somewhere along the line, all that got changed."
The original voucher program in Milwaukee was limited to 300 students whose families had incomes of less than 175 percent of the poverty level. Today there is no limit on the number of participants, and the income cap has been lifted to 300 percent of poverty. More than 25,000 children are in Wisconsin's school choice program today.
Numerous studies have shown that voucher students perform no better in reading or math than their public school peers. But Governor Scott Walker expanded school vouchers to nine new districts around the state this year. And the state legislature, with the backing of the powerful school choice lobby, has been pushing a raft of legislation to siphon public school funds into private voucher and charter schools.
The $6,442 per pupil in public funds attached to vouchers is more than the cost of tuition at many parochial schools. That, along with start-up funds for new voucher schools, creates a powerful incentive for cash-strapped parochial schools and unscrupulous, fly-by-night operators alike. As a result, parents in voucher districts have been inundated with marketing calls, flyers, and advertisements at taxpayer expense urging them to send their kids to private school for free.
Nowhere is the problem with turning public schools over to private business more evident than in Milwaukee, the birthplace of school choice.
"Academy of Excellence" is spelled out in snap-on plastic letters above a phone number on a temporary-looking sign on West North Avenue.
A teacher stands in the doorway of a rundown office building with peeling orange paint on cinderblock walls, watching children jump rope in the parking lot between rows of cars. A few little girls crouch on the sidewalk, drawing with chalk.
Pastor George Claudio of the StraightWay Vineyard Christian Fellowship greets us inside.
He has been serving as principal here since September, although he has no background in education, he explains.
"I'm not a trained principal, so my approach has been more of a business and leadership approach," he says. "I don't know much about academics, so I'm on a crash course, relying on the teachers in the building.
"Everybody here is way below the poverty level," he adds, as we peer into a classroom where four-year-old kindergarteners are lying down for a nap on the dirty indoor/outdoor carpeting. A teacher snaps out the lights.
Despite the dirty carpet and peeling walls, and a first-floor bathroom with no toilet paper, no paper towels, and heavy scribbling in the stalls and over the sink, Pastor Claudio is proud of how much better things look here since school started in September, after a major cleanup. Last fall, he tells us, the lights didn't work.
This building has flipped through several voucher schools. The last resident was BEAM Academy, an Edison charter school. "Edison" plastic tags still adorn some of the classroom doors. Another Academy of Excellence school, on the south side, is in even worse shape, the pastor tells us.
There are three Academy of Excellence schools in Milwaukee, run by the Association of Vineyard Churches, a conservative, evangelical sect.
Every morning, Pastor Claudio leads the school in a daily devotional.
"We use the Bob Jones University curriculum," he says.
Most Academy of Excellence teachers have gone to college, he says, though not necessarily in the education field. "We don't need a teaching certificate in the choice program," Pastor Claudio explains.
"We have two-thirds of our kids who would probably benefit from special ed," Pastor Claudio tells us. But there is no special education program here. Instead, the pastor makes an effort to connect kids with tutors: "college kids, people who are interested in education. They sit down for individual instruction with them. Plus we have people from all the churches—I'm connected with so many churches."
"Welcome to Middle School Science," says a sign on an upstairs classroom door. Eleven eighth-grade boys are sitting in the science class. Another poster at eye level on the door says: "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth—Genesis 1:1"
The teacher, Mr. Mosconi, walks over and closes the door as we look in.
On the same hallway there is another large poster that says: "God can see your heart and he knows that it is wicked."
There are currently 270 students enrolled in the Academy of Excellence in kindergarten through eighth grade. Next fall, the school plans to double in size when it takes in 200 children of refugees from Myanmar whose native tongue is not English.
"There are new refugees coming in every day," says Pastor Claudio. "They didn't have any other choice. They are being picked on and bullied in school. So we will have 400 kids."
None of the teachers here speak Karen, he says. "If you speak their language, they make slower progress," he adds.
As we leave, a gaggle of little girls is sitting on the ground in the parking lot. "I like your shoes!" one of them calls.
Herndon is shaking her head.
"He said his building is better than the one on the south side, you should see that one!" she says.
"And the city approved it anyway," says Hicks.
State representative Mandy Wright, a former teacher, is concerned about the special ed kids and the Karen-speaking immigrants who are coming to the Academy of Excellence.
"They are targeting this super-vulnerable population, whom they know nothing about," she says. "And when he says that two-thirds of his kids need special ed . . . they have no idea how to serve those kids."
Not all of the schools on our tour have such grungy facilities. Some, run by former Congressman Mark Neumann, boast shiny new computers, spic and span classrooms, and a strict, orderly environment.
Herndon's van pulls into a strip mall on North 25th Street. Next door to a Family Dollar Store and a blood plasma donation center is the HOPE Christian School: Prima.
Banners in the parking lot are emblazoned with the school motto: College, Christ, and Character.
Founded in 2002 by millionaire home-builder and former Republican Congressman Mark Neumann, the HOPE Prima school is the oldest of five HOPE Christian schools he runs in Milwaukee. Neumann's business, Educational Enterprises, Inc., also runs charter schools in Phoenix and St. Louis.
"Wisconsin is unique in allowing religious schools" to take public funds, HOPE's principal, Anna Greenman, explains. The other Educational Enterprises schools are secular.
Inside, Harvard and MIT pennants hang in the entryway, along with a big poster of the cross.
Black children wearing uniforms—dark blue slacks and skirts and bright green shirts—file through the hallway in silence. The overwhelming first impression of the school is how quiet it is.
"We believe in a really calm environment," says Greenman. "Our voices are off in the hall. Our arms are hugging our materials or behind our backs."
More than 98 percent of the 560 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are African American.
"How many of your teachers are African American?" Herndon asks the principal. "None, unfortunately," says Greenman. But, she adds, 90 percent of the teaching assistants in the classroom are black.
In one classroom, a young white woman stands at the front of the room asking questions and calling on students who answer from their desks. A black teaching assistant stands at the back of the room, looking on.
In a large computer room, middle schoolers wearing headphones are taking a standardized test. Teachers are rigorously evaluated on their students' scores, and the school expects rapid improvement, Greenman tells us.
Almost every child at HOPE qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
There is no cafeteria, so at lunchtime the children collect sandwich trays from a cart in the hall and carry them back to their classrooms, where they eat quietly at their desks.
Each classroom is decorated with the name and mascot of the teacher's college—or the college the teacher roots for, explains Greenman, who graduated from Martin Luther College, run by the evangelical Lutheran Synod, in 2008.
College pennants are everywhere: Boise State, Ripon College, UW Stevens Point.
Bulletin boards advertise scholarship awards from colleges to the graduates of HOPE High School: "Bethany Lutheran College with a $20,000 academic grant!!!"
And then there is this: All over the walls in the hallway are big, green million-dollar bills.
A child's face peers out from the center of one million-dollar bill, announcing that he is a member of the "Millionaires Club," having taken a computerized test to show he knows one million words.
"Can you be the next millionaire?" a poster over another kid's face asks. "Winner, winner millionaire!!"
There is something troubling about this theme. Partly, it's the fact that the students here are so poor. Partly, it's the feeling of a heavy-handed sales job—all the talk about big scholarships, the Ivy League pennants, and the "millionaires club" in a school located next to a Dollar Store.
And then there's the fact that the school's founder, Mark Neumann, is, himself, a millionaire—with assets that may be worth as much as $16.38 million, according to filings from his 2012 Senate campaign.
Neumann's company, Educational Enterprises, Inc., is a nonprofit. The company's tax forms show that Neumann draws no salary. But his son Andrew makes $146,452 to administer the schools. The schools' development director made $103,137.
Last fall, Milwaukee County agreed to issue $18 million in bonds to the HOPE Christian Schools. Educational Enterprises lists seven private real estate holding companies on its tax forms, all located at the same Waukesha address. Five of these companies each share a name with one of the Neumann voucher schools—Prima, Semper, Fortis, HOPE Christian High School, and a new school, Caritas. Caritas is due to open in the fall in a car dealership purchased by the Caritas real estate holding company.
The Prima school recently bought the whole strip mall and is now landlord to the Plasma Center and Family Dollar.
There is not much public information available on the business dealings of Neumann's privately held real estate interests.
But, according to a 2013 Forbes magazine article, "Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City," real estate investment in private schools that take public funds has become a highly lucrative business, attracting players like EPR Properties. "Charter schools are in the firm's $3 billion portfolio along with retail space and movie megaplexes," Forbes reports.
The Federal New Markets Tax Credit allows investors in school buildings located in poor areas to earn up to 39 percent in tax credits.
"So attractive is the math," Forbes notes, "according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News, "a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.' "
Educational Enterprises, Inc., reported $11.6 million in assets in 2012. EEI Real Estate Holding Prima LLC has also listed assets of $1,149,835.
How much of this money is trickling down to the students at HOPE?
The school makes a big deal about getting 100 percent of its graduating high-school seniors into college. But a closer look shows those results are not as good as they sound.
Governor Walker recently attended a HOPE Christian High School "Signing Day" ceremony, where, with much fanfare, he announced that for the third year in a row 100 percent of HOPE high school graduates were accepted to college.
But data kept by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shows that out of a class of seventy-three tenth graders in 2011, only twenty-three showed up for the "signing day" photo op with Governor Walker, or 31.5 percent.
Out of eighty tenth graders who attended the HOPE high school in 2010 only thirty-six graduated in 2013, or 45 percent.
The statistics are even worse if you look at the lower grades.
A five-year longitudinal study by the Legislative Audit Bureau in 2011 showed that approximately 75 percent of Wisconsin voucher students who enrolled in ninth grade withdrew by twelfth grade.
"We have a very transient population," Greenman suggests.
The last stop on our tour is Carter's Christian Academy, in a building that could pass for a corner store.
This is a mom-and-pop enterprise, run by the Carter family for the last ten years on the same block as a check-cashing joint. Twice a week, the 175 kindergarteners-through-eighth graders who attend Carter's go across the street to the Salvation Army to use the gym.
Ms. Carter, the proprietor, greets us in the bright yellow entryway, crowded in by a reception desk and a soda machine. Big, shiny plastic letters spell out the name of the school over her head, on a "wall of fame" with quotes from the bible and pictures of Carter's staff.
"We've been going up a hill one wheel at a time," says Ms. Carter. "It is an honor to have you come." She clasps hands with Representative Mandy Wright. The Carter Academy has never received an elected official before, she says. "Just the thought," she enthuses. "Just the thought."
Third-grade teacher Annette Davis, a former guidance counselor in the Milwaukee Public Schools, has been teaching a lesson that involves a poster of a Van Gogh painting, a list of biblical principles, and some financial information labeled "Resource: Money Kit."
She takes time out to show us something the class made called a "Time Capsule of Prayer."
"We're getting ready to present this to the school," she says. She reads us some of the kids' prayers: "We'd love our school to go green." "We'd love a gym."
In the combination lunch room and chapel, cafeteria tables are stacked across from an altar with a "Lion of Judah" cloth on it.
A big drum set and a keyboard sit behind plexiglass near the altar, waiting for religious services to start.
In the four-year-old kindergarten classroom, kids are looking at flash cards. The teacher asks them, "How long is infinity?" A little boy yells, exuberantly: "All day long!" The teacher laughs.
Herndon asks the African American assistant principal, Mickell Hartell, "What do you see as the importance of children being exposed to their own culture?"
"I think it's very important," he says. "I was exposed to black teachers, and I wanted to be like them. Some of us grew up the exact same way as these kids. I tell them, we made it out, so you can. . . . I try to be walking testimony.
"I didn't have lights at home," he adds. "I tell them you can still do your homework before 7:30, before it gets dark."
The family-like atmosphere here is a relief after the strict silence of the HOPE Christian School and the squalor and menacing religious messages at the Academy of Excellence. At least kids can eat together, and there is music.
Still, it's hard to believe that this hodgepodge of a curriculum is what passes for public school. Surely there ought to be some floor on both the basic facilities and the professionalism of teaching in a publicly funded institution.
"My thing is, as blacks, do we have to go to school in a dump to get an education?" says Herndon as we drive away. "You are what you live, what you see."
Both Herndon and Hicks came out of Milwaukee's once-thriving, industrial African American middle class. They went to good, integrated public schools. Herndon graduated from West Division, now known as Milwaukee High School of the Arts, in 1964. Hicks graduated from Rufus King High School in 1961.
"I never went to a segregated school," says Hicks.
Herndon was one of the first black women computer programmers in Milwaukee, when she started at Honeywell in 1974. She finished her career at Harley Davidson as an accounting software trainer for Harley dealerships nationwide.
Hicks was a high school special ed teacher.
Now they are fighting the resegregation of their community—and the stranding of kids in isolated, fly-by-night academies that virtually guarantee they will never make it out of poverty.
The latest battle of the mad grandmas is against new laws that would force the sale of public school buildings to private school operators.
"The public schools are just being raped," says Hicks. "A lot of schools no longer have gym, no longer have art, language, higher math. Schools don't have the money because they're sticking money in charter schools and vouchers, which are businesses."
In Milwaukee, eighth graders are attending what purports to be a public school to study science and learn creationism.
Third graders are absorbing a strange home brew of art, finance, and bible passages.
Immigrant children straight from refugee camps in Myanmar are landing in a school that looks like a refugee center, to be immersed in English and a harsh religious ideology that teaches them that their hearts are wicked.
All of this is supported by the public with tax dollars.
It looks like the end of society.