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Defending school choice

By Libby Sobic and Susan Mitchell

Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 7, 2022

Ruth Conniff, the former Progressive Magazine editor, is distraught at the creation of the Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom. Her view is that Wisconsin’s public schools are functioning smoothly with high levels of satisfaction. Groups like ours are merely distorting reality in order to “dismantle” public education, and “bankrupt” the massive public education system.

The truth is less sensational.

Supporters of school choice, including our Coalition, simply want parents to have the right to decide what is best for their own children – whether that be one of Wisconsin’s many excellent traditional public schools, a public charter school, or a school that participates in one of the state’s parental choice programs.

Most children in Wisconsin will attend public schools. Right now, there are approximately 820,000 children in public school districts that receive over $5 billion annually in state general school aid and also rely on local funding from property taxes and federal aid.

In contrast, approximately 49,000 children are part of Wisconsin’s parental choice programs. That includes 28,800 children in Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee Public Schools board closed traditional public schools during the pandemic and where many children in MPS cannot read or write.

All children deserve the chance to be safe, literate and pursue their dreams. Conniff sees two different “systems” engaged in a divisive political fight. That’s not what parents see. Parents see their children, not school systems. In many families, students enroll in different types of schools throughout the course of their education.

Increasing numbers of families want private schools in the parental choice programs as one of their options. Research has found that they have good reasons.

Taken as a group, children attending private schools in Milwaukee through the parental choice program score better on proficiency tests than students in MPS, particularly when they are compared for socio-economic basis. Not miraculously better, but better.

Other peer-reviewed work shows that students that participate in the voucher program are 4 to 7 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a four-year college and persist in college than a matched set of students in public schools.

Still other studies have shown children in Milwaukee’s school choice program are much less likely as young adults to encounter trouble with the law or be involved in paternity suits — to live lives less afflicted by personal misery and to be better neighbors to their fellow Milwaukeeans.

That’s what the research shows in the aggregate. But again, this is about individual families and children, and individually the picture brightens still further.

Annually, every one of Milwaukee’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School’s graduates moves on to higher education. For seven years, HOPE Christian High School graduated every one of its students. For 12 years, every graduate was accepted into colleges.

Sadly, the 3,400-student HOPE network closed its central-city high school after last school year and will concentrate on its seven outstanding elementary schools. The reason is that funding of just over $9,000 for high schoolers, is far below the funding that goes to traditional public high schools.

The funding gap makes it difficult for private schools to offer more seats and limits options for families.

What do families want? Perhaps it’s a safe, orderly learning environment, often cited by parents at Milwaukee choice schools. You can see why that’s an issue when last year, Milwaukee’s traditional district high schools had to summon police an average of 7.2 times each school day.

Or parents might choose a school for the moral or ethical outlook. Families’ views differ on many matters — from sexual ethics, to whether sex is assigned at birth or innate, to the way to properly balance America’s flaws against its ideals. These questions have no empirical answers. Letting parents choose among schools fits the American tradition of keeping society civil by permitting diversity.

Conniff doesn’t just frame the issue wrongly. She is also wrong about the facts.

Giving parents choices has not impoverished traditional public schools. Those schools spent on average $15,329 per child in 2020-21, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In real dollars, spending rose 23% since 2001.

Critics confuse serving a system with educating children. Parents — and taxpayers — want results, not a system that demands more money but produces diminishing returns.

It comes down to this: Do children belong to one public school system? Or do they have value as individuals, each of whom deserves a chance at success in life?

Wisconsin’s parent choice program treats children as individuals and supports parents’ responsibility to choose what is best for them. That freedom deserves to be protected and strengthened.

The Wisconsin Coalition for Education Freedom includes the Badger Institute, American Federation for Children, Americans for Prosperity, School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, K12/Stride and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The Coalition was formed to empower parents and expand educational opportunities such as school choice. 

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