A diverse group of nearly 1,000 students visited the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 28, and some even got to sit with Vice President Mike Pence during his historic visit. Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came to Madison to celebrate educational freedom brought about by school choice in Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program started 30 years ago, and a few years ago went statewide. Department of Public Instruction data indicates about 42,000 students across the state are participating in the program.
In the simplest of terms, students whose family incomes are below specific limits may receive a voucher for about $8,000 per year to attend a private or charter school of their choosing. It avails an opportunity for many a chance at better educational outcomes. Those participating have opportunities for greater control and input than in public schools.
School choice is not without critics. The mainstream big education lobby staunchly opposes school choice. The School Choice program is often used as a scapegoat for any challenges facing a district. Participating in an update to Baraboo’s Strategic Plan, the Choice program was often cast as a “threat.” Ironically, discussions often involved ways to be more responsive to learning characteristics of individual students, exactly what the Choice program embodies.
Every public school has a whole bunch of great students. There are thousands of dedicated teachers and staff in public schools making a concerted effort to do the best they can for students each day, and those actions are to be commended.
There are also teachers, staff, administrators and outside influencers seeking to promote agendas and create environments unfriendly to many students, especially those of faith, or with conservative values.
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Having served on boards of both public and private schools, on Feb. 6, I testified at an Assembly Education Committee hearing on two bills, AB 849 and AB 810. AB 849 would allow students in the Choice program to open-enroll part-time at another district, providing the same opportunity currently afforded public school students. Objections to the measure were focused on logistical challenges that already exist. They didn’t seem to understand it is simply about providing equal opportunity.
AB 810 brings greater transparency and accountability to how districts report their financial data to include more details and has my whole-hearted support. There is an inherent challenge given the nature of the myriad sources and uses of school funds, but more accountability and simplicity is needed. No parts of AB 810 impact how the Choice program works.
It didn’t stop a committee member, Rep. Sondy Pope, from commenting on the partisan-stoked deceptive idea pushed by numerous school boards of placing “costs” of the Choice program on every property tax bill. Despite admonitions about relevancy from Committee Chairman Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Pope continued down the path. I testified the “cost” they advocate showing doesn’t begin to tell the whole story, and greater transparency in school accounting would benefit all. Why object to simpler accountability?
Pope’s actions reinforced the idea many public schools, rather than take a necessary and complete look inward at the results they produce, or the environment they create for both students and staff, seek to place blame, casting the Choice program as the cause for their ills. There can be a sort of arrogant, condescending attitude projected to parents and students by many of the educational elites.
Opposition to the Choice program is about money and control. Public school advocates don’t want to see kids achieve better outcomes for less money. Private/charter schools inherently have more accountability. Put simply, if outcomes aren’t acceptable, parents and kids leave, and the school doesn’t survive. Accountability 101.
Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty provides a report called “Apples for Apples” for comparative data between public and Choice schools. Among key data points were “Parental Choice Schools outperform public schools statewide. Proficiency exceeds traditional public schools (by) 3.05% in the statewide and Racine schools, and Parental Choice Schools have higher growth than public schools statewide. Growth rates exceed that of traditional public schools by 6.8 points.”
Beyond the data and dollars, we must look at intangible impacts control in education may bring to the student and to parents as well. There are opportunities for potential improvements in behavior brought by more structure, respect, better citizenship or values instilled to vulnerable youth. You can’t measure the impact when a student can come to a more welcoming school home, as Choice schools offer a far-ranging set of environments to meet a wide range of needs.
The Wisconsin School Choice Program is an important and needed option for students and parents alike and deserves your support. See you at the Capitol.
Scott Frostman lives in Baraboo and has roots throughout Wisconsin. He believes anyone can make a difference and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.