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WI school vouchers: ‘Working miracles on the south side’

By   /   May 13, 2013  /   No Comments

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MILWAUKEE — A roomful of hands shot up Monday in one of the classrooms at Notre Dame Middle School.

Sister Jean Ellman, principal of the all-girls voucher school in the city’s near south side, had asked the students, “How many of your families are from another country?”

One girl said her family came from Peru, the rest from Mexico. Ellman said many of the girls’ families in the poor, Hispanic community don’t speak English at home.

Roughly 90 percent Notre Dame’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 94 percent are voucher students, and 98 percent are Hispanic.

Lawmakers toured Milwaukee's Notre Dame Middle School Monday, making their case for school voucher expansion statewide.

Lawmakers toured Milwaukee’s Notre Dame Middle School Monday, making their case for school voucher expansion statewide.

Despite the barriers, 48 percent of eighth-graders at Notre Dame hit the proficient mark for reading on the fall 2012 Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, compared to the 41 percent statewide average.

That’s not compared to Hispanic or just poor students. The girls at this small, Milwaukee Catholic school from homes where little or no English is spoken outperformed the statewide average in reading.

“Our kids really do read. They’re just picking up books constantly,” Ellman said in the school’s library.

“I don’t know if it’s just the trip to Leon’s (frozen custard) that motivates them,” she said, laughing.

The girls earn points in a school reading program, earning them a trip to the local ice cream shop. Ellman said when a class of girls enters the school, somewhere between half and two-thirds are behind grade-level.

Last year, 100 percent of the school’s eighth-graders who took the WKCE scored proficient or advanced. The state adopted a more rigorous scoring standard for reading and math this year.

Perhaps a greater accomplishment, 98 percent of Notre Dame students graduate from high school and 84 percent go on to college, a school administrator said.

Despite the success of the curriculum, schools like Notre Dame are dependent on the green or red buttons pushed by 132 lawmakers in Madison’s Capitol — the voters with ultimate control over school choice expansion.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for choice,” said Mary McIntosh, the school’s president. “What we want to do is we want to serve more kids. We’re working miracles down here on the south side.”

Voucher schools like Notre Dame receive about half of the $13,000 per student in state aid that Milwaukee’s public schools get. The 6 percent of students who don’t qualify for vouchers pay $1,500 in tuition. The school raises another approximately$1 million privately to help defray the costs.

During the school day Monday, McIntosh unlocked the school’s front doors for several state lawmakers — mostly Republicans — and members of the media for a tour. A mural, painted by former students, of four girls wearing blue sweatshirts with the white letters NDMS and red checkered skirts surrounding Mother Theresa, greets the building’s visitors on entry.

The words Respect, Regalo (Spanish for gift), Responsibility are painted at the top of the mural.

“We live and breathe these values,” McIntosh said.

“From our standpoint, we just want the kids to succeed,” she said. “I want MPS to succeed, I want charter schools to succeed and I want choice schools to succeed because our city, our community our state — we’re the ones who win. If we don’t have kids with a good solid education, what does that mean for the future?”

The Legislature is universal in its stated support for education. It’s the means to that end that has spurred millions of dollars in lobbying from public teacher unions and school choice proponents, and seemingly endless debate in Madison.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 budget includes expanding the voucher program in nine additional public school districts – beyond Milwaukee and Racine where vouchers At least three Republican lawmakers have said they don’t support voucher expansion. Other Republicans, however, have said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t include it.

On Monday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester and Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, said they support “statewide expansion” of school choice.

After the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected a half-billion dollar increase in expected revenue over the biennium, Walker called for more investment into public schools, a potential bargaining chip in voucher expansion deal-making.

Notably absent from the tour Monday were Senate Democrats or any of the three Senate Republicans who has publicly opposed Walker’s plan to expand the voucher program.

Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, one of two Democrats on the tour, wasn’t ready to throw his support behind the voucher program’s expansion.

“I have been very critical of the school choice program. I still am opposed to the statewide expansion,” said Barnes. “The schools that we visited have been pretty good schools, but to accept that that’s the norm for the entire program, in my opinion, is pretty naïve.”

Barnes defeated former Rep. Jason Fields in a primary election last summer that centered largely on Fields’ support of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Barnes said Monday the school voucher issue had become too politicized. He said that’s wrong.

“It’s beyond politics, it’s about our children,” Barnes said. “We need to escape the whole political part of it. It needs to be really solution-oriented.”

Contact Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@wisconsinreporter.com

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.