Proposed school vouchers blasted at Beloit meeting

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From left; Gail Hicks and Marva Herndon from Women Committed to an Informed Community spoke at a panel discussion on school vouchers Thursday evening. The women said voucher schools in Milwaukee included many "fly-by-night" operations which closed down, and did not perform as well as the public schools.

“Fly-by-night” schools housed in factories and storefronts and students who can’t read could one day be a reality in more communities if voucher school expansion continues in Wisconsin, according to Marva Herndon and Gail Hicks, founders of Women Committed to an Informed Community, based in Milwaukee.

The two grandmothers-turned-activists spoke out at an informational session on school vouchers at the Rotary River Center on Wednesday evening. Hosted by the School District of Beloit and the Beloit Education Association, the panel presentation also included remarks from Beloit School District Superintendent Steve McNeal, Board of Education Vice President John Acomb, Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce President Randall Upton and Beloit College Professor Kathy Greene.

Although there might only be 50 students in the voucher program for the first year in Beloit, Hicks said it likely won’t stop there. She cautions parents to be aware of the money vouchers will pull from the public schools and the poor quality education students could receive from what she calls “fly-by-night schools” without the transparency requirements imposed on public schools.

Hicks said voucher schools have been devastating for Milwaukee.

“Now we have adults who aren’t educated and have children, and they can’t make educated decisions on the schools,” Hicks said.

Students also have been shuffled around as the voucher schools came and went.

From 1998 to 2012, for example, 113 voucher schools in Milwaukee opened and later closed their doors, Hicks said. And when they closed, the public schools had to take the struggling students back.

Hicks said she’s seen corruption among voucher schools in Milwaukee. Not only have the voucher schools failed to prove that they perform better, she said, they have collected voucher money for students only to ship them back to public schools after the second and third Friday counts in September and January.

She went on to say voucher schools aren’t required to have certified teachers and may not even have playgrounds. Some, she said, are even in environmentally unsafe areas.

The “20-year experiment” Hicks said, has been devastating for students who enrolled from one voucher school to another, and then back to their public schools.

Acomb told attendees that having vouchers in the community will leave the perception of a failing district which could endanger the city’s economic development efforts and lead to lower property values. Acomb went on to stress the district is not failing as is evidenced by the recent release of graduation rates. For example, the legacy rate for graduation, meaning students who need more than four years to graduate, at Beloit Memorial High School for 2011-2012 was 94 percent. The cohort rate for graduation, meaning students who graduate in four years, at BMHS is 83 percent.

Upton agreed with Acomb’s concerns about the district being unfairly labeled. Upton praised the district for addressing the skills gap by its efforts to revamp technical education and work with local business advisory committees.

McNeal said the district already lost 100 jobs in the last four years and said expansion of the voucher program would take more money away from public schools, which must educate and nurture all children including those from poverty and those with a variety of special needs.

“We don’t choose which kids come to us. There’s a difference between teaching high poverty (students) and affluent family (students). We care for every one of those kids because they deserve the best,” McNeal said.

Greene said voucher schools don’t have to hire certified teachers, respect free speech and due process and don’t have to abide by open meetings and open records laws. They don’t have to provide service to English Language Learners and do not have to accept all students.

At the meeting, attendees were invited to visit www.stepup4publicschools.org or Women Committed to an Informed Community at http://www.womeninformed.org/.

At the meeting’s close, Mark Smith, a parent with two children in the district, asked why Beloit is one of the communities proposed to get voucher schools. In an interview after the meeting, he said he was disheartened with the discussion. He said he was hoping for an informative meeting, but said it felt more like an election campaign which used scare tactics.

He said he didn’t believe Beloit parents would ever send their children to unsuccessful voucher schools.

“It was a bashing to say the parents of Beloit would be foolish enough to put their kids in empty warehouses,” he said.

He also said he was concerned that choice for parents was something the business community seemed to be against.

“They are talking about peoples’ property values. I thought this was about education of kids,” he said.

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