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Wisconsin Spotlight | Jan. 26, 2021

COVID has laid bare a lot of hard truths about our society, including the inequalities of our education system. When teachers’ unions flexed their political muscle to shut down in-person education, the well-off could respond by shifting their children into private schools that stayed open. Others could afford to have one parent stay at home to assist newly virtually schooled students. Many middle- and working-class families, by contrast, were forced to bend to the whims of the unions and their allies in the public education bureaucracy who denied science and kept our schools closed. 

These closure orders hit especially hard for those families working in hourly wage jobs who lack the flexibility to accommodate at-home learning. For some white collar workers who can telecommute, at-home learning is inconvenient but doable. It’s a much larger burden for a single mom or a pair of parents in blue collar jobs that can’t be done on a laptop. 

As we celebrate National School Choice Week, we should redouble our resolve to ensure that educational options are available to every family, in every zip code, regardless of circumstances. 

During the eight years of the Walker-Kleefisch administration, our policies led to a doubling of the number of students in state-funded choice programs. We created a statewide choice program that now serves thousands of students in more than 150 schools across the state, and a new special needs scholarship for our most vulnerable students. 

I’ve seen firsthand the successes of many great choice schools, like St. Marcus in Milwaukee. Its students are poorer than the average Milwaukee Public Schools student but they beat MPS on standardized tests in every single subject area. I was honored to address the students at St. Joan Antida High School, which is leading the state in partnership with Project Lead the Way to train girls for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. And I started the 2017 school year at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Madison, whose poor and working class students outperform Madison Metropolitan School District schools by 10 points on the District’s own scorecard. 

These schools are changing lives, and proving it with real, hard data. We need more of these high-performing schools, and more seats at existing top choice schools. We can help make that happen by pushing local school boards to sell or lease empty buildings to choice and charter schools that are anxious to expand and operate in them. 

We also must expand eligibility so more middle-class families can access school choice. Right now a family of four, with two parents each making just $32,000 a year, can’t qualify for a statewide choice scholarship. In the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, that limit is $41,000 each for two working married parents. The number is too low in both cases, but it’s especially unfair that a working class family outside Milwaukee has less chance at a scholarship than one in the city. 

Education freedom should not be an opportunity only for the wealthy, especially now. We made great progress expanding school choice during our eight years in office, but we still have a long way to go to open the doors of every school to every student regardless of income or zip code. I wish we had a governor who saw it that way, too. 

Rebecca Kleefisch is President of 1848 Project, Inc. and Wisconsin’s former Lieutenant Governor.

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