Eye on the Capitol|
Parental School Choice succeeds in meaningful ways
Performance gap narrower between whites and other groups in private schools
By M. Colleen Wilson
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has garnered considerable press lately, as the Legislature weighed the prospect of effectively eliminating the program by significantly diminishing the amount of state funds available to low-income parents seeking a religious or independent school option for their children's education.
As policy makers argued about the appropriateness of state funding for this program and the amounts needed to fund the program, little time was focused on considering the merits of the Choice program.
What is the Choice program accomplishing that makes the participating schools attractive to families?
Participating schools are creating diversity in educational environments. In the Milwaukee program, 37% of the children participating are African-American. Hispanics comprise 32% of the Choice population, and Caucasian students make up 22% of the population. In Catholic elementary schools, 78% of the Choice students enrolled are children of color.
Statistics in the Catholic high schools participating in the Choice program are similar, indicating that racial diversity is being achieved. How ironic that a program that is achieving racial balance in education is continually undermined by the same persons and organizations who have spent lifetimes trying to achieve similar results in our public schools.
The Choice schools, like other religious and independent schools around the country, are likely making progress in narrowing the achievement gap that exists between Caucasian children and children of color. An analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test demonstrates that achievement gaps that exist between minority and Caucasian students are significantly less than the gaps nationwide.
According to the Council for American Private Education, while the difference between the performance of black students and white students nationally is 33 points, it is 26 points in private schools. The Hispanic/white gap nationally is 29 points, but only 22 points in private schools. Once again, religious and independent schools are accomplishing the goals that most educators strive for.
There are other documented success stories with educational options in other cities, as African-American students in New York City, Charlotte, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., demonstrate improvements in achievement at religious or independent schools. There also are undocumented success stories of children of all ethnic backgrounds who are thriving in the educational environment of their parents' choice.
Do the studies conclude that religious or independent educational options are better than the opportunities available in the public school setting? Not at all. What the studies do make clear, however, is that some educational options work better for some children.
The Choice program is about making sure that those families who lack the financial resources to realize educational options have the means to make the genuine educational options a reality for their children. We cannot continue to accept an educational system that does not offer meaningful choices to all students.
Too many children lack the most basic skills needed to function in the 21st century. Such an environment does a tremendous disservice to the children, and to our society, as we cannot reap the rewards of their potential as contributors to the common good. As we move away from the rancor of the budget debate on the school choice issue, it would serve us well to focus on what this invaluable program gives to the children who participate, and what they in turn can give back to the community in the future.
(Wilson is associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)