Private schools key part of education landscape

posted June 20, 2017 9:41 a.m. (CDT)
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Is Wisconsin well-served by efforts to force children to attend schools that their parents think are a bad fit, and don’t provide the education their children need?

More than 25 years ago, the state Legislature decided the answer was no. So it created various kindergarten through 12th grade school choice programs to provide children the opportunity to attend the school of their parents’ choice. The idea caught like wildfire.

But as the Legislature debates the pending state budget, you’ll hear lies and distortions about the impact of school choice on Wisconsin. There are some basic facts people need to know:

• Today, 53,188 Wisconsin students — nearly 6 percent — are using public school choice, called “open enrollment.” Families of all incomes are eligible.

• If you are a student with special needs who has been turned away from open enrollment by a public school district, you could apply for a special needs scholarship to attend a private school. Interest among schools and parents has exceeded capacity.

• If you are low income, you also have access to vouchers to attend the private school of your choice. There are 27,619 students in Milwaukee and 4,641 more students around the state using these programs.

• Public schools across the state enroll about 821,000 students who attend the public school assigned by the local school district in which their family has chosen to live.

• The state’s private schools enroll another 123,104 students, whose parents can get a tax deduction for a portion of their tuition.

This shows that education is not a “one-size-fits-all” enterprise in this state. But there are some critics who’d like to make it so, and take Wisconsin back to when families had no options.

Critics try to pit public and private schools against each other. But let’s try to remember that the point of all this money is to educate children successfully — not sustain systems, public or private, for the sake of adults. If a parent feels a school is failing his child, shouldn’t we want to find a better option?

The goal of private schools is to provide parents with alternatives — not to “take over” public schools. Fearmongers like to screech about the “privatization” of education. But here’s the reality: There are not enough private schools to enroll all of the state’s school children.

In fact, the vast majority of private schools in Wisconsin enroll kindergarteners through eighth-graders. These students graduate on to attend public high schools. For that reason, the private schools have long supported a robust public education system, and work closely with public schools to help students transition from one choice to the other.

Actually, from a financial standpoint, private schools are needed in Wisconsin. If the private schools close, state and local taxes would have to increase by $1 billion to educate all of those children in the public system, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

As for accountability, private schools in Wisconsin are covered by hundreds of laws regulating every aspect of school life. Schools participating in the voucher program have even more regulations to follow. And, these private schools also have to keep the tuition-paying parents happy because if they don’t, the tuition disappears and schools close.

Finally, both the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court long ago ruled that voucher programs are constitutional because the government plays no role in choosing the school. The courts ruled that choice programs meet the state’s secular interest of educating children. If a voucher is used to attend a religious school, it’s because of a parental decision — not government fiat.

School war rhetoric diverts attention away from discussions about our common goals. Nothing is gained from pitting public and private schools against one another. Instead, let’s work together to support local and state education systems that help all children attend schools that meet their needs and strengthen their family’s efforts to raise educated and productive citizens.

Sharon L. Schmeling is executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, which enroll 100,000 students in 600 schools. It was first organized in the 1960s and is the official state chapter of the Council for American Private Education.

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