The Nation’s Oldest Voucher Program: Beacon Of Hope, Or Failed Experiment? – Claudio Sanchez May 19, 20176:00 AM ET


A student picks out a book for silent reading time at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee.

LA Johnson/NPR

Milwaukee has the nation’s longest-running, publicly-funded voucher program.

For 27 years it has targeted African-American kids from low-income families, children who otherwise could not afford the tuition at a private or religious school.

The vouchers are issued by what’s known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Some some see vouchers as a beacon of hope in a public school district where student achievement lags far behind the state average, and where only 20 percent of students are proficient in English language arts and fewer than 15 percent in math.

Others say the program is a failed experiment that’s siphoned away money desperately needed by the city’s struggling schools.

Texas Bufkin Christian Academy, a private, for-profit religious primary school in Milwaukee, is the lowest-performing voucher school in the city, state officials say.

LA Johnson/NPR

As part of our reporting on vouchers around the country, and to get a look at the program as it stands today, we visited several schools in the voucher program.

Texas Bufkin Christian Academy has operated for 16 years. It occupies an old building that once housed a nursing home. The school’s founder, Texas Bufkin, is wary of visitors, especially reporters.

Texas Bufkin, the founder of the school with the same name, says she opened the small religious school because of a calling from God.

LA Johnson/NPR

“We don’t let people from the media in our building,” says Bufkin. Why? I ask. “Because I just don’t feel like I need to talk to reporters.” Eventually, I’m allowed inside but, Bufkin says, just for a few minutes.

Of the 121 private and religious schools in Milwaukee’s voucher program, this is the lowest-performing, according to state education officials.

All of the 94 students enrolled from pre-K to 12th-grade are African-American, Bufkin says.

All have a voucher worth up to $7,900, depending on the grade they’re in. The school’s latest scores on state tests show that not a single student is at grade level: not in math, not in reading, science or social studies, according to state education officials.

Texas Bufkin’s daughter, Nicole Bufkin, who helps run the school, says there’s a reason for the students’ poor performance: Most of the children that the school takes in arrive four to six years behind.

“The child who’s not a great student, the child that’s just falling through the cracks — they may not be going to Harvard, they may not be going to Yale,” she says. “But we’re the people who are the net and we’re catching them.”

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