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
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.