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In Wisconsin’s home of school vouchers, advocates push harder

By   /   January 23, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – School choice in Wisconsin has come a long way since the late 1980s, when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee led the national school voucher revolution.

What began as a few private religious schools serving a couple hundred public school children in inner-city Milwaukee has swelled to scores of schools reaching nearly 25,000 students – the vast majority among the poorest of the poor.

The concept of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has expanded into Racine, where 11 schools boast enrollment of more than 500 students total. Racine expects to open up as 500 more spots next year after state-imposed caps are lifted, according to Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parental rights in choosing the education of their children.

School choice has grown by leaps and bounds in Wisconsin over the past three decades, including expansion of public charter schools and virtual schools, institutions not bound by the same rules as traditional public schools.

While national choice and traditional school advocates debate the overall success of non-traditional K-12 education delivery models, proponents of Milwaukee’s choice schools point to real achievement gains.

The School Choice Demonstration Project, which tracked two grade cohorts in Milwaukee Public Schools and the choice program, found the latter posted higher graduation rates – 76 percent to MPS’ 69 percent among students who began ninth grade in 2006. The difference was less pronounced for eighth-grade students in the same year, with 73.7 percent of choice students graduating from high school to 71.6 percent of MPS students.

Overall, the report summarized that enrolling in private school increases the likelihood of students graduating from high school, enrolling and persisting in post-secondary education by 4 percent to 7 percent.

And the choice program educates its students at about half the taxpayer cost as Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee Parental Choice schools receive per pupil vouchers of $6,442 compared to $13,239 per student in public aid in MPS traditional schools, according to School Choice Wisconsin.

A 2010 fiscal impact report on Milwaukee choice schools shows the state was able to redirect $74 million in aid to public school districts outside of Milwaukee, thanks to per-pupil cost savings at choice schools.

Those funding inequities are sure to be a topic of discussion in the Legislature’s education debate this session – ultimately a debate on whether to further expand and better fund choice schools.

“We’re saying it does cost a certain amount of money to provide a high quality education for children,” Brown said.

The school-choice advocate said the private schools aren’t asking for the same level of taxpayer support found in Milwaukee public schools, but they would like to be at the $7,775 per-pupil funding levels the state’s charter schools receive. Besides, Brown said, it has been a long time since choice schools have seen any aid increase.

“Given the fact that you have another school reform model in charter schools receiving significantly more money, you have to ask, ‘Is the child in a choice school worth less?’”

Academic studies on charter schools have been mixed.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, points to a 2009 Stanford University study as proof of inherent inadequacies in the charter school system.

“It was found that there are some very successful charter schools,” WEAC noted in an informational paper. “However, the authors report that … in the aggregate, students in charter schools (are) not faring as well as students in traditional schools.”

That assertion, however, is gleaned from a report that showed 63 percent of charter school students were performing at or significantly better than students in traditional public schools.

While choice advocates have had their battles with public schools over the years, a host of players from the education community will come together Jan. 30 to celebrate National School Choice Week.

National School Choice Week has chartered a historic rail car and is organizing the movement’s first cross-country, whistle-stop train tour to “galvanize public support for enhanced educational options.” The 14-city tour makes its sixth stop in Milwaukee.

A breakfast reception is slated for 8:30 to 10:15 a.m. at the Grain Exchange, 225 E. Michigan St., in Milwaukee.

The event is hosted by an array of education organizations, including School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, Milwaukee Public Schools, Democrats for Education Reform, and Hispanics for School Choice.

In the current legislative session, Brown said, school choice advocates are not only calling on lawmakers to expand choice options, they also would like a bifurcated funding system that pumps more resources into choice high schools where more funding is needed.

“What we really want to do is open up choice, to allow schools to innovate and to allow parents to pick the winners, and not bureaucrats,” Brown said. “As schools innovate, their partners will begin to innovate and the result will be better education for our kids and more efficient costs for taxpayers.”

Contact Kittle at mkittle @wisconsinreporter.com

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M.D. Kittle