Forum launches debate on school choice vouchers
BELOIT Every child deserves a chance to learn—that's a given.
It gets more complicated when people start to talk about where and how children should be educated—and who should pay for it.
On Tuesday, Americans for Prosperity sponsored a forum about school choice at the Rotary River Center in Beloit.
The event included speakers from All Patriots Media, School Choice Wisconsin, Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Kristi LaCroix, a public school teacher from Kenosha.
The event was part of a tour that will take speakers to Green Bay and Kenosha.
In an interview before the event, David Fladeboe, communications and policy director for Americans for Prosperity, said the event's goal was to "show what opportunities school choice would give a community like Beloit."
"We want to see a good discussion about the issue in the community," Fladeboe said. "We want to start the dialogue."
Americans for Prosperity has been open about its support for school choice and the voucher system. The organization, which is funded, in part, by the Koch brothers, has also been open about its support for conservative causes and politicians—including Gov. Scott Walker.
In Wisconsin, school choice allows low-income students in Milwaukee and Racine to attend private schools if the public school they attend is failing state standards.
Opponents of school choice think that the system takes money away from struggling public schools, making a bad situation worse. Funding for public schools is determined, in part, by enrollment numbers.
Supporters say that competition is good for education. In addition, supporters think that the parents of low-income students should be able to send their children to the best school possible and take their tax dollars with them. Choice would level the playing field, giving low-income students the same chances as students from middle- and upper- class families.
The positives were on parade at Tuesday's meeting.
Casey Given, Americans for Prosperity Foundation policy analyst, outlined what he called the "myths about school choice." They included ideas such that school choice steals money from public schools, that it excludes poor students and that charter schools perform worse than public schools.
Milwaukee's choice program is open only to students whose families fall below a certain income level.
In addition, Given said that nationally, charter schools perform just as well—or even better than public schools.
Another speaker pointed out that 82 percent of students at Roy Chapman Andrews Charter School in Beloit were proficient in English, significantly better than other public schools.
As for taking money from public schools, Given pointed out that all tax money is our money. Wouldn't it make sense, wouldn't it be fair, if all families could take their money and choose where their child should go to school? Given asked.
About 24 people attended the meeting, and some audience members expressed their support about choice.
However, Beloit School Superintendent Steve McNeal took exception to some of the ideas that were presented.
Luke Hilgeman, Wisconsin director of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, told the crowd that 51 percent of schools in Beloit were failing.
McNeal said that information was incorrect.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction rates schools in four categories: "fails to meet expectations," "meets few expectations," "meets expectations" and "exceeds expectations." The DPI website shows that six of Beloit's 13 public schools "meet expectations", one "exceeds expectations" and the remaining "meet few expectations."
Roy Chapman Andrews Academy, a public charter school that was cited as having the high number of students proficient in English, also "meets few expectations," according to the DPI website.
McNeal asked how many members of the panel attended public school. When all of the panel members raised their hands, McNeal said "God Bless America."
Expanded school choice is expected to be part of Walker's next budget.
On Tuesday, Walker was in Whitewater for an entrepreneurship event. When asked for his perspective on expanding school choice, he said that his budget would include more money for public schools.
"Part of what we're looking at is whether to expand the parental choice program between Milwaukee and Racine to other communities across the state," Walker said.
Walker said his "number one priority is to support public schools, but in the rare instances where there's not a viable alternative, where families would otherwise be forced to go to a failing school, those are the limited number of cases where we're considering choice."
Ted Lewis, director of the Rock Valley Education Professionals, said expanding school choice was a bad idea, "especially on the heels of historic cuts for education."
"Diverting resources to private schools makes no sense," Lewis said.
School choice could make things worse for struggling schools, Lewis said. Private schools have no obligations to take students with emotional, behavioral or other special needs.
In the end, public schools would end up with larger class sizes—and the most challenging students, Lewis said.