WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Milwaukee teachers union cares so much for the city's students, it is fighting a program that by next year would give 15 percent of them the choice of escaping from this caring.
The state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, pursuing constitutional propriety as it understands it, supports this attempt to circumscribe the liberty of thousands of Milwaukee's poorer parents and children.
And now Wisconsin's Supreme Court has served the interests of the union and the ACLU by acting with a swiftness and force that suggests the court thinks Milwaukee is in danger of suffering the ''establishment of religion.''
Because of all this high-mindedness, thousands of children of low-income parents had their school year jeopardized until contributions from the Bradley Foundation and sympathetic individuals met the tuition needs of most of them. This case illustrates the tenacity of opponents of programs that extend to the poor the school choices available to most of the tenacious opponents, who are not poor.
In 1990 Wisconsin's legislature approved a voucher program for Milwaukee. The program makes children from families earning less than $26,000 eligible for vouchers worth up to $3,600 for private-school tuitions. The teachers union unsuccessfully fought the program even before there was a religious issue, on a variety of state constitutional grounds.
So did the ACLU, which argued that the program would drain money from public schools. That is hardly a civil-liberties problem.
And it is an odd argument coming from the ACLU, which has sued public schools more than any other organization, and is partly responsible for rulings that make it difficult to discipline disruptive students -- rulings that have contributed to public-school disorders and thus to the attractiveness of private schools.
The local NAACP filed a brief in support of the union's position even though 95 percent of the children enjoying choices under this program are black or Hispanic. The local African-American paper, the Milwaukee Community Journal, which supports the voucher program, reports, believably, that 88 percent of black families do, too.
In July the legislature expanded the program by making the vouchers redeemable at religious schools. (Ninety-three of Milwaukee's 130 private schools are sectarian.) So the ACLU and the teachers union --ed back to court, claiming that this change violated the separation of church and state.
Now the state Supreme Court has issued an injunction, stopping the program until the constitutional point has been adjudicated.
But what danger justifies this disruption of a program affecting approximately 3,000 students (about 3 percent of the city's students) who were admitted to religious schools under the voucher system?
What irreparable harm could come from allowing the program produced by Wisconsin's democratic institutions to proceed while the lawyers argue? Even if the court eventually comes to the preposterous conclusion that the program constitutes ''establishment'' of religion, disestablishment could be promptly ordered.
The ''establishment'' accusation is a flimsy pretext for attacking school choice (and defending union jobs). The voucher program does not have as its ''primary effect'' the advancement of religion (a U.S. Supreme Court test).
The program, which gives vouchers to individuals, gives no direct financial assistance to religious institutions. It establishes no incentive for individuals to pick private over public schools or sectarian over nonsectarian private schools.
And because state regulations affecting schools in the voucher program are minimal, the program cannot be said to involve ''excessive entanglement'' of government with religion.
Nine inner-city private schools report an average 88 percent graduation rate, compared with 48 percent for public high schools.
Opponents of school choice say such disparities are largely explained by the fact that vouchers enable private schools to ''skim the cream'' from the student population, leaving public schools to cope with the rest. But a state auditor found that before students in Milwaukee's choice program entered the program they had significantly worse results on reading and math tests than the average of public-school students.
In Milwaukee's public schools, at most 48 percent of students graduate, the dropout rate is more than seven times the state average, and even after substantial attrition of many of the least promising students, 79 percent of entering seniors last year failed a math-proficiency examination required for graduation. In 11 public high schools that enroll more than three-fourths of all black students, the average grade is 1.5 on a scale of 4.0 and the failure rate in core academic subjects ranges from 26 percent to 43 percent.
Obviously public schools should not be blamed for all the consequences of inner-city life. But neither should they be allowed to treat the inner city as a plantation inhabited by captive students whose avenues of choice must be restricted to prevent escapes.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.