School choice saves taxpayers
Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen says new study contradicts earlier one
By Joanne Flemming
Milwaukee's School Choice Program may actually save taxpayers money, says State Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen after a recent analysis of the program by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The new report was issued while taxpayers and legislators opposed to School Choice are still reacting to an analysis done two years ago, he said, which "suggested that the way School Choice was funded, that some of the money was coming out of pockets of other school districts around the state."
The state's school districts - including Milwaukee - are funded two ways: through local property taxes and state aid, Jensen said.
In Milwaukee, the cost of a child attending public school is around $8,000. Tuition in most of the city's Catholic elementary schools in $1,500 to $2,400 per student; in the high schools, it is around $4,500 per student, Jensen said.
The difference between the public and private school costs represent "savings into the overall school aid fund which is distributed to other schools around the state," Jensen said. "Instead of losing $21 million, as people thought, (there is) actually a gain of $6 million."
School Choice, he said, "allowed money that normally (has) gone to the Milwaukee public schools to follow children to parochial or private schools."
Wisconsin's five Roman Catholic bishops, including Bp. Robert Banks of Green Bay, last week sent a letter to the members of the legislature's Joint Committee on Finance asking for continued support of School Choice.
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, noted that School Choice was set up in 1995 so low-income families could choose the school their children would attend.
Such a choice was important, said Lee Nagel, director of Total Catholic Education for the Green Bay Diocese, because of "serious concern about the quality of education" in the Milwaukee public schools. "Parents who shared that concern wanted an option," he said.
Huebscher added that School Choice "is an important part of providing real educational opportunity for families in Milwaukee where the school district is really hurting, where families are in desperate need of other options.
"(It also) connects families with all of the social capital in neighborhoods by allowing them to choose neighborhood schools in Milwaukee," he continued.
At first, students could only attend non-religious private schools which make up about 10% of the city's private schools, Huebscher said.
In 1998, the United States Supreme Court ruled that including religious schools was constitutional. "That's when we saw enrollment really take off," the WCC director noted.
Maureen Gallagher, director of Catholic education for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, also noted the importance of that ruling. "We are able to serve more and more low income children because of it," she said.
There are 38 Catholic schools involved in School Choice. The 33 elementary schools serve 3,235 students and the five secondary schools serve 590 high school students. "Two-thirds of Choice kids are kids of color. A significant number are not Catholic," Gallagher said.
In noting the importance of School Choice, Nagel said, it "gives low income parents who never really had a choice ... an opportunity for choice. You don't have a choice unless you can financially afford it. To say everyone in this country has a choice is not valid unless there is a way to provide that option for poor people."
Huebscher said School Choice "is consistent with our Catholic values that parents are the primary educators of children."
Bill O'Brien, retiring executive director of the Appleton Catholic Education System, said "it gives that individual, that family, an opportunity for success, and really isn't that what we are after? We're after student success."
Is School Choice helping students succeed? Huebscher said studies will be needed to "track performance over time."
Speaker Jensen said Harvard and Princeton and major national think tanks have done such studies and have concluded that "children perform better academically" and that "children and parents are much happier with the education they are receiving. It's both a matter of parental satisfaction and student performance."
Work remains to be done in two areas, said Gallagher. The first is "to build a political solid ground of support." The second is "to continue to develop model schools for more effective urban education."