Lastmonth the Wisconsin state legislature approved a plan (strongly backed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson) under which 1,000 low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools would be given the option of attending a nonsectarian private school free of charge -- that is, the state would foot the bill just as if the child were going to public school. Within limits, of course: a participating private school could receive a maximum of only $2,500 from the state.

But whatever benefits such a plan might have for those low-income kids, it also amounted to what could only be seen as a sharp rebuke to the public school system. That fact wasn't lost on state School Superintendent Herbert Grover, who went before a gathering of school administrators shortly after the bill was signed and urged that some group -- any group -- sue the Department of Public Instruction. Otherwise, he said, he would have no choice but to go ahead with implementation of a program that he plainly had no taste for.

A lawsuit was duly filed by an assortment of teachers, educational administrators and the president of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP (although that organization itself has not entered the suit). The petition they submitted -- now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court -- is an extraordinary document, primarily because of the stunning indifference it reveals to the actual business of educating children.

Central to the petitioners' complaint is their outrage over the fact that poverty-stricken children will be attending private schools that do not "meet any of the educational standards of public schools within the State of Wisconsin." The lawsuit further charges that the program would violate the section of the Wisconsin constitution requiring uniformity of education because, with some students attending public schools and others attending private ones, a "disparity" would ensue, leading to a "substantially different 'character of education' for certain classes of Milwaukee school children."

The brief goes on to argue that the use of state funds to send Milwaukee public school students to "standardless private schools" violates provisions of the state constitution requiring that public money be spent for public purposes. "Presumably," the brief argues, supporters of the program "will argue that the public purpose is to promote educational opportunities for poor people." But "if education is indeed the public purpose," then "the statute necessarily fails because it contains no educational controls, measures or standards of accountability."

Now, you can no more teach children "educational standards" than you can serve a recipe for dinner. To talk about the presence or absence of government-mandated quality controls skirts the real issue, which is the presence or absence of quality education. What the petition cannot say -- because it would be be demonstrably untrue -- is that the 1,000 Milwaukee students who choose to attend private schools will receive a worse education. True, private schools don't "meet any of the educational standards" of public schools; that's because for the most part they exceed those standards. True also that students who attend private schools are likely to receive a "substantially different character of instruction." It will undoubtedly be better.

Not once in the petition are the relative merits of Milwaukee public and private schools assessed in terms of the education or educational climate they offer children. There is no mention of courses of study, rates of graduation, reading scores, school safety, or the presence or absence of drug use. In short, the petition opposing the parental choice program does not touch on a single issue that a parent of a school-age child cares about.

There are plenty of folks in Milwaukee, however, who have been willing to speak out on such matters. The parental-choice program has received overwhelming grass-roots support, especially from the low-income, primarily black parents who fought hard to have the program enacted and who are its intended beneficiaries.

The Milwaukee Community Journal, the state's largest-circulation black newspaper, has supported the program from its inception. Mikel Holt, the paper's editor, has little sympathy for the administrators of the Milwaukee public school system, which has a dropout rate of 40 percent for low-income black students and which graduates students with an average GPA of 1.7.

Race, he emphasizes, is simply not an issue in this debate. Of the half-dozen private schools that have so far signed up to participate in the program, all are predominantly black and financially strapped -- and they still do a better job of educating students than the public schools. The Harambee Community School, for example, graduates 98 percent of its students, 89 percent of whom go on to college; the Bruce Guadalupe Community School, which caters to the poorest of the poor in Milwaukee (the school is itself in debt and in danger of having to shut down), is recognized nationwide as providing at-risk students with a decent education in a concerned environment.

"The poor, understaffed schools are doing a better job," says Holt. The formula is familiar: "They feature strong parental input into the educational process." The public school system, with its unwieldy bureaucracy and emphasis on central planning, "has broken the bond between parent and school," says Holt.

Those who have brought suit against the Milwaukee program are clearly interested in saving face. In their efforts to do so, they find themselves having to argue the following illogical propositions:

1) Uniformity is desirable in and of itself. In other words, it is better for all indigent children to receive a uniformly bad education than for some children to obtain a good one.

2) The absence of government regulations equals the absence of standards, e.g., institutions cannot draw on common sense, personal integrity, ethical or religious considerations, in developing a strong internal set of standards.

Members of the educational establishment, like some social activists, have a vested interest in perpetuating problems until they can be solved in a global and dramatic way -- one that also, of course, brings them personal satisfaction and professional glory. Polly Williams, the black state legislator who authored the parental-choice bill, has a ready reply for those who see their positions threatened: "If you are all worried about your jobs, try doing them better."

The writer is associate editor at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.