School competition inevitable, and good

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Education marketplace tells the story: Beloit district must get better.

LET'S ADD ONE MORE significant factor to the argument that decision-makers in the School District of Beloit cannot dither and bicker anymore, and must get going with the daunting efforts required to turn around a flailing system.

Plans were announced a few days ago to reopen St. John's Lutheran Church school in the fall of 2019, with the intention of becoming the city's second participating private school in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. The other is Rock County Christian School.

St. John's operated a private school from 1951 to 2013. All the classrooms and infrastructure already exist, and officials say the reopening plan "is a turnkey operation." Up to 260 students could be accommodated. Parents may begin applying for state vouchers early next year.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: This is a market-based decision on the part of those behind the new private-school concept. Clearly, they believe a lot of people will be interested in receiving vouchers funded by taxpayers rather than enrolling their children in the School District of Beloit.

The facts are the facts. From current voucher options to open enrollment among public schools, the Beloit district has been bleeding students and the trend has been accelerating. That's a marketplace condition those who support public education in Beloit - and we include ourselves in that category - cannot afford to ignore or sugarcoat.

Disarray and dysfunction involving successive school boards and administrations is considerably to blame. It's hard to focus on the really important stuff when leadership breaks down. We hope - as does most of the community - current reorganization of the board, coupled with an eventual successful search for new administrative leadership, produces the horsepower and courage to begin the necessary processes for change.

We suggest relentless focus and accountability on these three priorities: (1) Moving the needle positively on disappointing academic scores; (2) restoring strict discipline and order in school buildings; and (3) the kind of talent recruiting-and-retention process that satisfactorily arrests the exodus of good staff.

BY THE WAY, we are in no way suggesting the St. John's plan is bad for or a blemish on the community. To the contrary, it may prove a plus by offering families looking to relocate a sound educational alternative for their children.

It's no secret that as companies have added thousands of jobs here over the past two decades Beloit largely has missed the population growth which ought to have accompanied expansion. We won't try to tag the school district with all the blame for that. Other factors obviously come into play, and one big one has been a relative shortage of housing options. Nevertheless, it's fair to say the district has not positioned itself as a magnet to help attract new residents, and getting it to the point where it does is the right goal.

We believe "choice" is a good thing, for many reasons, including providing private-school opportunities for families considering relocation to Beloit.

We also believe the number one option in any community should be quality public schools, and we fully support strong efforts to make it so.

IT'S A DIFFERENT DAY in Wisconsin, though, because of higher numbers of vouchers being available every year for private schools. Coupled with public school open enrollment, that makes the education marketplace much more competitive. There is no captive class of students on which to depend anymore.

The right goal for the Beloit district - and a fair yardstick for measuring success - is to become a net winner rather than a net loser in that competition. We believe it's possible. We also believe it will require a relentless focus on change.

A FINAL WORD: We call readers' attention to the adjoining Guest Commentary on this page, penned by Dan Adams and Sherwin Hughes. The article examines the proper role for competition and choice in the pursuit of improved educational outcomes for all students across Wisconsin. Empowering families, rather than political interests, holds great potential for making a difference by encouraging all schools to compete and improve. (Adams is a graduate of Beloit Memorial High School.)

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