Members of the Hispanic School Choice Association at the March budget hearing held in West Allis.

Following a contentious debate with renewed accusations of Republican ambivalence toward public education, the Joint Finance Committee approved removing the enrollment limits on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and allowing all private and parochial schools within Milwaukee County to enroll students.

This vote did not alter the income requirements for the program according to JFC Co-Chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). While Gov. Scott Walker has proposed removing the income limits for school choice, that measure has not been placed on the JFC’s calendar, yet. For now the current income requirements of a maximum family income of 175% of the federal poverty level for new students ($38,937 for a family of four) and 225% of the FPL for continuing students.

Currently, there is a 22,500 pupil limit on school choice enrollment and only 20,300 students are currently enrolled in the program. JFC Co-Chair Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said the artificial enrollment limit needs to be removed because it currently “takes away the decision from parents.”

Vos explained that on a visit to St. Marcus School in Milwaukee, he looked into the eyes of students and saw hope and tears of opportunity.

“They were excited to tell me where they were going to college or community college,” Vos said. “These students were failing in MPS and now they have hope. We shouldn’t wait to give one more student that kind of hope.”

That was his reasoning for supporting the expansion of choice schools beyond the Milwaukee city borders. With the committees 14-4 approval, now private schools throughout the county will be able to enroll program pupils.

St. Marcus Lutheran School, a participant in Milwaukee School Choice

However, only city of Milwaukee students can be part of the program.

Milwaukee’s Democratic members of the JFC, Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Tamara Grigsby, accused the Republican committee members of refusing to listen to their concerns about the school funding formula that penalizes Milwaukee taxpayers, the lack of accountability measures for choice school teachers and administrators and the future proposal with eliminating income limits.

Taylor also called the idea of non-Milwaukee representatives making decisions for its residents and students “paternalistic.”

Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar) was more emotional about what he sees as a power grab by those who want to decimate public education in the state.

“You only see hope in the eyes of children in private schools,” he asked Vos and the Republicans. “Well, its not the schools that fail kids. Kids fail and their parents fail them. Milwaukee’s problem is dysfunctional families. We need to acknowledge that the only sancuary for these children is a public school, not a private school. How many of you were nurtured by a public school teacher?”

Darling disagreed that the moves to expand school choice are an attack on public schools, agreeing instead with her colleagues that this is an opportunity for families to choose a better school if they desired.

Following the vote to increase the number of students and schools involved in the program, the committee also approved changes to the fiscal operations of school choice. Currently, voucher checks are sent to the parents, who then pay the school. On Thursday, the JFC approved having the Department of Public Instruction to send the checks directly to the schools. This option will cost $44,000 to reconfigure the DPI’s computer payment system, but those funds are not included in the department’s budget.

Grigsby called this an unfunded mandate on the DPI, something the Republicans were supposedly opposed to doing. Vos said the $44,000 investment will reduce the fiscal cost of the choice program in the long-run, so it would move forward.

The same bill, AB 94, will allow a family to enroll all of its students in a school with one application, have all siblings voucher payments combined onto one check and require the fiscal audits of choice schools be done according to generally accepted auditing standards.

The bill originally would have eliminated the 40% school year payment for summer school enrollment, but it was restored on a 15-1 vote.

Taking sides on school choice

Scott Walker’s proposals to expand school choice options in Milwaukee have brought out some interesting opinions in recent weeks. Early supporters are starting to doubt the orginal idea of choice being used to provide opportunities for Milwaukee’s poorest children, while others not typically on Walker’s side have spoken out in favor of the expansion.

At the JFC’s budget hearing in West Allis last month, Dr. Howard Fuller – one of the architects of school choice – denounced the plan to lift income requirements and asked for more accountability for choice schools. He went so far as to threaten to pull his support for school choice if wealthy students were allow to participate.

“Please don’t make it true that you were using the poor just to eventually make this available to the rich,” Fuller said. “If this is done, I will become an opponent of this.”

Former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism.

But former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist has come out in support of expanding school choice to all students, including those from higher-income families, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

He said allowing wealthy students to take part in school choice will “limit has the effect of isolating low-income students from other more affluent students.”

He used St. Louis as an example. “If a young couple moves to St. Louis and chooses a home in one of the city’s revitalizing neighborhoods like Forest Park, everything goes well until their first child approaches school age. They might decide to pay for private education at one of the few such schools in the city. Or they might take a chance on getting into one of the city’s elite magnet schools. But what looks like the surest way to enroll their child in a good school is to move to a suburb, such as Webster Grove. The schools there draw from a mostly affluent population, have a large tax base behind each child, and are free of charge if you live there.”

Norquist explained Tuesday on WTMJ’s 620-AM Charlie Sykes show that the Canadian government subsidizes students attendance at public, private and religious schools. He added that Canada’s teachers are unionized, so government vouchers for private schools is not a method of busting unions.

“If choice is expanded to everybody, including middle-class parents, they would be more inclined to live in economically and racially diverse cities once school choice was universally available.” Norquist told Sykes. He added this could be a demonstrated by expanded the choice program in Milwaukee.

Should choice be expanded as Gov. Scott Walker proposes?  Will it hurt or help the quality of education in our region? Let your representatives know how you feel before this measure goes to the floor of the Assembly.

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