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School Choice: Uniting — and Dividing — a Nation and a Neighborhood

by Peter Reese

How would your life change if School Choice were ended? “It would be a little sickening.” -Edna Hale, mother of three “It would change dramatically. I wouldn’t know what to do; I would have to find a third job because I wouldn’t want to send my kids to public school,” –Rochel Williams, mother of two (Because of the necessity for parents to work longer hours away from home to pay for tuition) “It would turn into a one parent household without it,” –Tim Young, father of two “I would have to send my kids to a different WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) school. My kids’ friends would be out of luck,” –Barb Allard, mother of two and St. Philip’s

Two questions: Should parents be able to choose where their children go to school? Should taxpayer money fund religious education? These are just two of many sometimes misleading questions used to sway voters’ hearts and minds in the battle over school choice. School choice is a generic term used to describe a program in which taxpayer money earmarked for education, instead of funding public schools, is given to parents as vouchers to be used at the non-public school of their choice. The future of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP or Choice) currently hangs in the balance as Senate Democrats in Madison push for cuts in the voucher amount that would effectively end the program for most parents. The voucher amount, which is based upon the cost of education per student, under current law would be worth $5,784 for the 2002-2003 school year. In the plan proposed by Senator Russ Decker (D-Schofield) as an emergency budgetary measure, that amount would be slashed to $2,000 for elementary and middle school students and $3,000 for high school students. This reduced funding would force many participating schools to close or severely reduce services for their students. Choice opponents argue that funding for the program “takes away a piece of the educational pie that is ever growing smaller.” A quick look at the numbers seems to support this statement. Roughly 11,000 students — and their funding — are expected to participate in MPCP in the coming school year. As a result, taxpayer money that Milwaukee Public Schools would spend instead follows these children to the participating private or parochial schools that their parents choose. The biggest flight of educational dollars from MPS has occurred in the past four years as Choice has rapidly expanded to include religious schools. This expansion followed the 1998 Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruling that the program did not violate the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently refused to hear an appeal. John Gardner, prominent MPS board member and vocal Choice advocate, released a report in January of this year that states, “(T)he evidence is increasingly clear that MPS students have made significant academic gains between 1997 and 2001, the period of the most rapid expansion of school choice.” According to his statistics, over the past four years, MPS students’ national rankings in eleven of fifteen academic areas improved at the same time that the percentages of low income and minority students in the system increased, a historical anomaly that Gardner attributes to the increased competition for students created by the existence of the Choice program. He also cites figures that indicate state aid to MPS increased 61% since 1990. The most startling fact in the report is that MPS increased real per pupil spending 24% over the past decade, from $7,646 in 1990 to $9,502 in 2001. Therefore, every parent who decided in 2001 to use a Choice voucher worth $5,553 to send their children to a private or religious school rather than a public school saved taxpayers almost $4,000 per child. Edna Hale, a St. Philip’s (Holton and Chambers) mother of three, says her son Dwayne, 9, has made dramatic improvements that put him far ahead of his public school peers since he has been in the program. Edna’s is not an isolated voice among thousands of lower income minority parents participating in Choice; the website SchoolChoiceInfo.org lists many personal success stories and testimonials by parents from Milwaukee to Cleveland to Florida. The constitutionality of Cleveland’s voucher program, which will determine the landscape of American education for decades to come, is at the time of this writing being decided at the U.S. Supreme Court level. Opponents to the program are just as emphatic. “The issue is government control,” Les Baker, deacon of St. James Lutheran Church and School (2028 N. 60th St.) says. Although acknowledging the benefit to children, Baker and many other religious conservatives fear that there are, or soon will be, too many strings attached for participating parochial schools to continue with traditional Biblical instruction. On the left side of the religious coin, groups such as the People for the American Way and the NAACP fear that school choice is a “law respecting the establishment of religion” since most students (67% in Milwaukee, 99% in Cleveland) using vouchers attend religious schools. Furthermore, many on the left, such as Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendant Elizabeth Burmaster and Senator Gwendolyn Moore (D-Milwaukee) who supports the program but not the way it is funded, seek to “hold Choice schools accountable” the same way public schools are, adding to Baker’s and others’ fears that the quality of religious education will be adversely affected by government meddling. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate is that school choice makes for “strange political bedfellows.” Allies of the Choice Coalition led by Howard Fuller, former MPS superintendent now Marquette professor, include: thousands of inner city families, Governor Scott McCallum (R), Mayor John Norquist (D), the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Islamic Clara Muhammad School (MLK Drive), conservative Lutheran schools St. Philip’s (Holton St.) and St. Marcus (Palmer St.), and a five member reform-minded group of the MPS school board which includes John Gardner and newly elected Barbara Horton. Opponents to Choice include, among others: the other four members of the MPS board, the NAACP, the ACLU, the teachers’ union (although the MTEA has moderated its stance recently), and some religious conservatives. Choice is an issue that may not be of concern to many middle and upper class families, unless of course they have strong ideological leanings one way or another. This is not surprising, considering that, as schoolchoiceinfo.org puts it, “Parent school choice is widespread — unless you’re poor.” The diversity within the opposing camps and the vitality that diversity brings to the school choice debate is certainly refreshing. Choice also provides for diversity and integration in education as lower income minority children attend schools that for so long only middle and upper income, mostly white, children were able to attend. And that diversity helps everyone because, as Tim Young, father of Montez, 11, and Lynnia, five months, says, “You don’t know where your next president, astronaut, or engineer is coming from.” Peter Reese is the Principal / Staff Minister of St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran School (WELS). He will soon be moving to the Woodlands on 96th and Brown Deer to start a school at Risen Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS). Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 6 – July 2002