‘Choice’ sparks debate

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Tony Katz of All Patriots Media talks about why parents need the choice to decide where to send their child to be best educated. Americans for Prosperity Foundation held an information meeting Tuesday evening which sparked some lively debate.

Parents deserve more choices, according to panelists who spoke out at an informational meeting on school choice Tuesday in Beloit.

Americans For Prosperity Foundation (AFP) held the event at the Rotary River Center as part of their Academy Series on School Choice.

“We are providing options if students are struggling,” said Kristi LaCroix, a Kenosha teacher with the American Association of Educators.

“We believe that competition drives innovation and results for all children,” Wisconsin State Director of AFP Luke Hilgemann said. “We need better results. We are falling behind other states and other countries.”

Tuesday’s panelists included LaCroix, Hilgemann, Tony Katz of All Patriots Media, AFP policy analyst Casey Given and President of School Choice Wisconsin Jim Bender.

The meeting followed Gov. Scott Walker’s speech on Jan. 30 at a School Choice event in Milwaukee, where he said parents deserve a broad range of choices. Currently the state offers voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine. The program gives eligible parents a state-funded voucher of $6,442 per child to defray their children’s tuition at private schools, including religious schools. Walker did not propose any specific policy changes, but did say he believed parents throughout Wisconsin deserved alternatives to schools that do not meet standards.

During Tuesday’s meeting, AFP panelists tried to dispel what they consider to be myths circulating about school choice. Some of the myths, they said, are that school choice just takes money away from public schools and leaves the poor or under-performing students there.

LaCroix conceded it’s true money is taken from public schools in some instances, but she said that’s fine with her. She said it only is using the money of taxpayers in a different way.

“Whose money is it?” she asked. “Are publics schools a jobs program?”

LaCroix said it’s time to start an honest conversation about options for parents, even if it’s uncomfortable for some. She said schools afraid of competition should get it together or get out of the business of education. And she doesn’t accept excuses of kids not performing well because they are poor or come from bad homes.

Stressing that the best teachers won’t lose their jobs in the event of expanded school choice, LaCroix said education debates need to focus on what’s best for children as opposed to what’s best for adults.

LaCroix went on to say she makes $74,000 a year teaching in a Kenosha public school, and said she is doing fine. She said paying more money to teachers isn’t going to necessarily improve education.

“I’ll save you tons of money. Let me watch the best teachers in the state,” LaCroix said. “When school choice really opens up in Wisconsin, it’s not going to be to suburban schools, it’s going to be to successful schools who invested in their teachers.”

Bender said claims that high performers will leave public schools is false.

“If you are a student and you are doing well there is no reason to leave. That’s when parents are looking for answers,” Bender said.

Katz played a video presenting statistics, including a claim that “51 percent of Beloit schools were failing,” which prompted Beloit Superintendent Steve McNeal to interject that the claim was false.

Hilgemann said the statement comes from reading the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) report card. In October the report cards indicated that School District of Beloit has seven of its 14 schools meeting or exceeding expectations, and half of the schools in the district meeting fewer expectations.

Some attendees voiced concern over the images shown, and what they considered to be exaggerated claims.

Parent Rick McGrath noted the images shown weren’t from Beloit.

“Images can be very powerful. Those were very dour and provocative photos. You’re casting the wrong impression of my community,” McGrath said.

McGrath said Beloit just passed its $70 million referendum and hasn’t had time to act out its plan yet.

Teacher Kathleen Woodman said she felt hurt by the video, and said it implied the School District of Beloit is failing, which she rejected.

“I want choices for our kids, but we also must speak about public education with honest facts,” Woodman said.

However, one parent in the audience said he was interested in school choice, noting he took his children out of the school district after concerns about student reading abilities. He said school choice creates competition, and said he wants to stay in Beloit but seeks more choices for educating his kids.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, asked about choice schools in Milwaukee and how they may differ from Wisconsin public schools in their ability to provide year-round education and wraparound services.

Bender said some Milwaukee choice schools are able to provide year-round education, in addition to early and late programming during the week, to better serve their urban students. 

Bender acknowledged that some communities will prefer the traditional model, but said that private schools have more flexibility to meet local needs.

Those seeking more information on school choice can visit www.DontSayNoWI.com and www.schoolchoicewi.org.

In an interview after the meeting Loudenbeck said she recognizes the School District of Beloit has implemented many innovations to accommodate at-risk students, such as its Response to Intervention program. She’s also aware of the strong community support for the district’s efforts to improve, as evidenced by the recent referendum, and the need to project a positive image of Beloit.

“But the reality is that government generally operates on a ‘one size fits most’ model, and public schools are no exception. Some kids will not excel in their local public school. The idea of school choice in Wisconsin recognizes that low and modest income families may not be able to afford a private education option for their children that are not benefiting from a public school education. The parental choice program attempts to provide equal access to educational options for those students,” Loudenbeck said. “I believe that if you looked at any district in Wisconsin, regardless of district performance on a report card, that you would find students and families that would benefit from parental choice options.”

Loudenbeck said she would like to see a parental choice debate focused on the children and families that could benefit from school choice and private school vouchers, without targeting individual school or district performance.

“I realize that may be difficult, but I am willing to work with community members to continue a respectful and open discussion on this issue,” Loudenbeck said.

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