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Voucher debate spreads to the rest of state

Apr 30, 2013 by

By Erin Richards –

In recent months, Green Bay School Board President Brenda Warren’s schedule has been packed with an uncharacteristic number of public speaking engagements.

Local television appearances, Kiwanis Club visits, parent meetings, even a realty company event.

Most want to know: What would a private school voucher program mean for Green Bay? For the district’s public schools? For area students, a growing number of whom are poor and racially diverse?

While people in Milwaukee have long debated the merits of the city’s private school voucher program, the potential expansion of vouchers to nine cities outside Milwaukee and Racine County has brought the polarizing issue to the rest of the state.

The rhetoric both for and against sending more public funds to private schools has intensified as the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee started voting on elements of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2013-’15 budget proposal.

“What we’ve lost in the past few years is the ability to talk about these issues without it being politicized,” said Sandy Whisler, a retired schoolteacher in Lake Mills, a Madison suburb. Whisler is part of a new group, Citizen Advocates for Public Education, that’s hosting a forum in Lake Mills on May 7 to educate people about vouchers.

Whisler said her group has not adopted a formal stance on vouchers, but many public school advocates view vouchers as part of a national push from conservative groups that want to divert taxpayer money from bureaucratic school districts and into less accountable private institutions that can also teach religion.

Voucher supporters believe private schools have the flexibility to provide a different and sometimes better educational experience, especially for children in low-performing public schools. The strongest advocates of school choice believe government funding should follow the child to whatever school a parent chooses, public or private.

Bob Pauly, the principal of Green Bay’s Notre Dame Academy high school and the former principal of St. Thomas More in Milwaukee, said he’d be eager to educate more students from Green Bay’s public schools, if government funds helped offset the cost.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was created in 1990 to give poor students in low-performing schools a chance to use a publicly funded subsidy to attend a private school.

Quality control measures have not been a strong feature. It wasn’t until three years ago that the participating private schools were required to administer the same state achievement tests as public schools.

Nine cities targeted

Superintendents from the nine districts in cities that could see voucher programs – Green Bay, Waukesha, West Allis, Beloit, Madison, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Sheboygan and Superior – are against Walker’s proposal, but resistance and support efforts have been particularly active in Green Bay.

The district started sending out facts of the day on Facebook that disputed claims made by pro-voucher groups. Parent groups organized to champion the district. University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researchers released a policy paper showing financial implications.

How best to serve students from a rapidly shifting demographic is a large part of the controversy.

Green Bay’s enrollment of around 20,000 students has been steady over the past decade, but white student enrollment has declined and Latino and black student enrollment has doubled. Student poverty has increased from about 37% to 60%.

Green Bay Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said the complex issues are difficult to explain to the public.

“They hear, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if you as a parent got to choose where your child went to school?’ But then you say, ‘Do you want to pay taxes for a child to go to a private school with no accountability?’ and it sounds like a different question,” she said.

John Gard, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly turned lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin, lives near Green Bay and has been involved in local sessions to promote the program. National conservative groups such as the American Federation for Children and Americans for Prosperity have played a role in those discussions.

Gard said public-school supporters are painting conservative groups as boogeymen.

“The high-level rhetoric from the opposition is about them protecting their money and their turf,” Gard said.

Gard said Green Bay has about 1,100 students leaving through open enrollment. And he points to the district’s latest 50% four-year graduation rate for black students.

In city leadership, staff for Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt said he’s “leaning toward” vouchers.

Support is much stronger a few hundred miles south in Waukesha, where the surrounding county has the state’s highest concentration of registered Republicans.

Mayor Jeff Scrima and County Executive Dan Vrakas, as well as leaders from the United Way and La Casa de Esperanza, back the expansion. Hundreds of supporters packed La Casa for a school choice rally last week.

La Casa President Anselmo Villarreal said he didn’t think that a voucher program in Waukesha would funnel money away from the district and make it harder to serve students who stay behind.

He said many families La Casa serves would like the choice to send their children to a private Catholic school.

“I believe the benefits are higher than the potential cost,” he said.

It’s a different scene farther south in Beloit, where city manager Larry Arft said many local leaders are standing with the district in opposition to a voucher program.

“Our community leaders have been asking to be removed from the list,” Arft said. “We’re focused on making our schools the best they can be. The last thing we need is a lot of resources pulled off to finance parochial schools or new private schools that pop up.”

Fast facts

• To determine which cities should get school voucher programs, Walker proposed targeting districts with more than 4,000 students and at least two schools rated “fails to meet expectations” on new state report cards. Critics say the report cards were not intended for this purpose.

• The per-pupil payment for voucher students is $6,442 per student a year, but it would go up to $7,050 for elementary schools and to $7,856 for high schools under Walker’s budget proposal.

• Three years of state test score results show no overwhelming achievement difference between students in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. An independent study found some benefit for students in terms of graduation and college enrollment if students had exposure to voucher schools.

If you go

ABCs of School Vouchers forum, 6:30 to 8 p.m. May 7, Lake Mills High School auditorium. Forum participants: Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin; Jim Shaw, former superintendent of Racine Unified School District, Jeff Pertl, policy adviser for the Department of Public Instruction

via Debate over expansion of voucher program heats up.

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