The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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April 20, 2001 Issue
Local News

WCC seeks modifications to school choice program

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference is asking state legislators to support modifications to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program included in Gov. Scott McCallum's proposed state budget.

Conference associate director M. Colleen Wilson urged the Senate Education Committee to address provisions in the law that create difficulties for low-income Milwaukee families who are attempting to improve their children's educational experience.

"Catholic tradition has long recognized the important role of parents as the primary educators of their children, as well as the importance of a preferential option for the poor," Wilson said. "A child's economic status should not prevent him/her from the educational choices that those of more ample resources enjoy, especially when the school districts in which the economically disadvantaged live fail to provide an adequate education."

The Conference backs a proposal in the budget bill that would enable Thomas More High School to participate in the Parental Choice Program by clarifying that a private school whose property straddles the city of Milwaukee and another municipality may participate in the Choice Program.

"Thomas More wants to participate in the Choice Program, and more importantly, lots of low-income families on Milwaukee's south side, many of whom are Hispanic, want an educational alternative to the public schools," Wilson said. "These families should not be denied this educational opportunity because of a technicality within existing law."

The budget also would raise income limits for Choice Program participation from 175% of the federal poverty level (approximately $29,000 for a family of four) to 185% of federal poverty (approximately $32,000).

Wilson took issue with critics of the proposal who argue that raising the income ceiling alters the Choice Program from its original emphasis on providing choices to needy families.

"The Conference has regularly advocated for raising income limits in other programs for the needy, like Healthy Start and BadgerCare," Wilson said. "No one has suggested that an increase in income eligibility has transformed those programs into something other than programs for the needy. Certainly this modest increase in income does not change the Choice Program's mission of providing choices in education to low-income families."

The budget bill includes a provision to allow students to continue in the Choice Program when family income rises above the ceiling set by law. Currently, if family income rises above the ceiling, Choice students lose their funds.

"Students should not be forced to leave the school of their choice when parents succeed in improving their economic status," Wilson said. "Our public policies should not discourage or punish people who receive overtime pay or pay increases for their hard work by completely stripping them of state and federal benefits that are helping families move to self-sufficiency."

Wilson also addressed the issue of mandating that Parental Choice schools use the standardized tests used by public schools to measure basic competencies. Wilson said Archdiocesan schools in the Choice program use assessment tests to gauge student performance, but cautioned against mandates.

"Rather than assuming that the state-mandated test is the best gauge of educational outcomes," she said, "the Catholic Conference believes that the determination about what test to use in which schools needs to be an educational judgment, not a political judgment. Ultimately, parents need to use a school's decision about assessment policies as one factor to consider when they make decisions about their child's education."

The Joint Committee on Finance is holding public hearings around the state on the budget bill and is expected to finish its work on the document in late May. Both the Assembly and Senate need to vote on the budget proposal before the governor can sign it into law. The process is expected to conclude this summer.

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