To highlight National School Choice Week, WFIS is sharing this important article written by Sharon Schmeling of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, our sister organization in Wisconsin, about the need for school choice.
Read below School Wars Don’t Work by Schmeling, an outspoken advocate calling for communities to stop pitting public and private schools against each other.
Over 25 years ago, the state Legislature decided the answer was no. So it created various kindergarten through 12th-grade school choice programs to provide children the opportunity to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The idea caught on like wildfire.
But as we near election day, you’ll hear lies and distortions about the impact of school choice on Wisconsin. There are some basic facts people need to know.
Today, 53,188 Wisconsin students — nearly 6% — are using public school choice, otherwise known as “open enrollment.” Families of all incomes are eligible. If you are a student with special needs who has been turned away from open enrollment by a public school district, you could apply for a new special needs scholarship to attend a private school beginning this fall. Interest among schools and parents is high. If you are low income, you also have access to vouchers to attend the private school of your choice. There are 27,619 students in Milwaukee and another 4,641 students around the state using these parental choice programs.
Meanwhile, public schools across the state enroll about 821,000 students who attend the public school designated by the local school district in which their family has chosen to live. The state’s private schools enroll another 123,104 students, whose parents can get a tax deduction for a portion of their tuition. Clearly, from the choices being made by parents, education is not a “one-size-fits-all” enterprise in this state.
But there are some critics who’d like to make it so, and take Wisconsin back 26 years when families had no options for their children. As campaigners try to pit public and private schools against each other, let’s try to remember that the point of all this money is to educate children successfully — not sustain systems, public or private, for the sake of adults.
If a parent feels a school is failing her child, shouldn’t we want to find a better option? In fact, the vast majority of private schools in Wisconsin enroll kindergarteners through eighth-graders. These students graduate to attend public high schools. For that reason, the private schools have long supported a robust public education system, and work closely with public schools to help students transition from one choice to the other.
The truth is, from a financial standpoint, private schools are needed in Wisconsin. If the private schools close, state and local taxes would have to increase by $1 billion to educate all of those children in the public system, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. As for accountability, private schools in Wisconsin are covered by hundreds of laws regulating every aspect of school life. Schools participating in the voucher program have even more regulations to follow. And these private schools also have to keep the tuition-paying parents happy because if they don’t, the tuition disappears and schools close.
Finally, both the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court long ago ruled that voucher programs are constitutional because the government plays no role in the selection of the school. The courts ruled that choice programs meet the state’s secular interest of educating children. If a voucher is used to attend a religious school, it’s because of a parental decision — not government fiat.
Election cycle, school war rhetoric diverts attention from discussions about our common goals. Nothing is gained from pitting public and private schools against one another. Instead, campaigners should help voters focus on how to support their local and state education systems so they help all children attend a school that meets their needs, and strengthens their family’s efforts to raise educated and productive citizens.
Sharon L. Schmeling is executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious & Independent Schools.