The details of success show why school choice needs to expand in Wisconsin.
As Messmer President and CEO the Rev. Bob Smith often puts it, education isn’t a function of test scores and homework — it’s about making better human beings.Still Messmer boasts some pretty impressive academic achievements by Milwaukee and national education standard, arguably making the nation’s oldest voucher program a shining example of school choice.The voucher system, allocating public money to send students — generally poor, minority students — to private, often faith-based, schools, opened in Milwaukee in 1990 when the state, led by then Gov. Tommy Thompson, cleared the way for the Catholic school to accept voucher students.Robb said the early years were a struggle, a time of anxiety, when faculty, parents and students wondered whether the whims of politics would change its voucher status.The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided the constitutionality of the question early last decade, just as school choice programs continued to expand.
No doubt some have been controversial, and some have failed during the past two decades, but there is no questioning the growth of school choice initiatives in Wisconsin and nationwide.
Parent interest in school choice has soared since the voucher program was implemented in Milwaukee.
In Milwaukee, 47 percent of students in the district attend a choice program outside traditional public programs, said Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, which advocates for choice in education.Some 6,400 students last year attended independent charter schools, funded by state education dollars but not affiliated with the public school system.Another 23,198 attended Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools, like Messmer.The Catholic school itself has seen its voucher enrollment, which comprises about 90 percent of its student count, climb from dozens of students in 1990 to just under 1,700 students on three campuses, with waiting lists each of the past seven years, Robb said.
Despite this success, there are the usual suspects who are critical of the program.
“If people want to operate private schools they should operate private schools. People are not paying property taxes to go to the private sector,” said John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teacher’s Inc., the teachers union in the Madison Metropolitan School District.For Matthews and other critics of school choice programs, the broader problem with independent charters is that they are not organized by the same organizational structures as public school systems, and that leads to a question of accountability.There also have been concerns that privately run schools on the public dime have been allowed to “cherry pick” their students, selecting the best achievers, leaving behind special needs populations.The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, along with groups like Disability Rights Wisconsin, last year filed a discrimination lawsuit against Messmer and other voucher schools, as well as DPI and the state, arguing the system “discriminated against students with disabilities”.
Ultimately it’s baseless criticism based on misconceptions.
Messmer’s enrollment includes about 150 students classified under special needs criteria, Robb said.And, charter schools are bound to take in black and Hispanic students, among the poorest of the poor in Milwaukee. Messmer’s free-and-reduced lunch population has approached 90 percent.
In the end school choice continues to see success because it ends the “monopoly” known as public education.
The success of school choice programs, Brown said, boils down to consumer confidence.“I think parents vote with their feet, not only when it comes to the academics of the school but the safety of the school and the character of the school,” he said.Groups like School Choice Wisconsin say competition in America’s bruised education system is not only good for students and families, it’s good for public education. The more choice — the more success outside the traditional public school system — the greater the education success at large, they argue.Brown and other choice proponents assert education unions have stymied success in a public school system that is stuck in 19th century state of mind. He said too many in public education want to “protect a monopoly.”But why not fix the existing public education system, at the very least devoting the public money from choice programs into public schools? That’s a question choice critics have long asked.“As a state we need to remind ourselves that while parents obviously support the roll of governmental funding in education, that doesn’t equal parental support of the government to run everything in schools,” Brown said.
Understanding the success of school choice has seen in Milwaukee and recognizing the misconceptions pushed by critics are the key to getting strong public support for expanding the program to cities like Green Bay.
Discover the benefits of private education during School Choice Week which runs through January 28.
- The Ills of “Patron Saint” Education: Why We Need School Choice (thecollegeconservative.com)
- Stand for Greater Choice in Education: National School Choice Week – January 22-28, 2012 (thegabriellahoffman.com)