Rep. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville — who now represents most of Beloit — is staunchly opposed to expanding private-school voucher programs into the city as proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.
Meanwhile, her counterpart Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton — who represents a portion of Beloit’s east side — says she is open to the issue.
Wisconsin’s voucher school program could expand to nine districts across the state, including Beloit, Green Bay and Madison, under the budget proposal Walker will submit to the Legislature on Wednesday. Under Walker’s proposed formula, qualifying districts would have to have at least 4,000 students and at least two schools receiving a D or F grade on the education report card.
Wisconsin has 42 districts with at least 4,000 students, but only nine have at least two schools with the lower grade — Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis-West Milwaukee.
Ringhand said she is opposed to expanding vouchers and wasn’t surprised with the news that Walker wanted to add Beloit to the list of districts slated for the program.
“I’m really disappointed the governor feels it’s the route to take. I don’t think he’s familiar with Beloit,” she said.
Ringhand said she will be talking to other legislators in areas being targeted for vouchers to see if a budget amendment can be added to remove the program from the list. She said individual communities should have the final say on whether their tax dollars can go toward private schools.
“I think that it’s definitely up to the people who live in a district, not a legislature. I know how hard Beloit is working to lift up its grades and attendance,” Ringhand said.
With the $70 million referendum just passing in April, Ringhand said she realizes the School District of Beloit needs more time to prove what it can do.
Ringhand said most people have attended public schools where they received a quality education.
“If parents want their kids to go to private school, they have the right to do it, but it shouldn’t be at the taxpayers’ expense,” she said. “It’s premature to be pushing this when the community’s not looking for it.”
State Sen. Tim Cullen said he was opposed as well and outraged the governor would include Beloit.
“The people of Beloit placed their trust in the district by passing a $70 million referendum,” he said.
Cullen suggested the governor come meet with community leaders, members of the school board, district officials and parents to find out all the good things going on in Beloit.
“If he understood the Beloit situation, he would keep his hands off Beloit,” Cullen said.
Loudenbeck appears to have changed her position since the last time vouchers were discussed two years ago. In a June 2011 interview with the Beloit Daily News, Loudenbeck said there wasn't enough support for voucher programs in Beloit so she did not support the concept.
On Monday, however, Loudenbeck said there was a very short window of time available to consider the expansion of parental school choice to Beloit during the last budget session.
“This time we have several months during which to discuss the issue, and I am hopeful that the community can engage in an open discussion that focuses on the children and families that could benefit from private school vouchers,” she said.
In response to the school district's position that poorer children won’t be able to attend voucher schools because their parents can't afford transportation, Loudenbeck noted that she previously served on the truancy committee in Beloit where members were concerned that transportation affordability was a contributing factor to truancy.
“If the School District of Beloit is so concerned about low income students not being able to afford transportation, they could start with providing increased transportation opportunities for their own students,” Loudenbeck said.
Loudenbeck also mentioned that some parental choice schools in the Milwaukee area offer wraparound services, including before and after school programs in addition to year round educational offerings which benefit working families.
Loudenbeck said after she asked for Beloit to be removed from the list of schools being considered in the 2011-2013 budget, she received many phone calls from parents and residents who wanted school choice.
“Right now I hope community members that are in favor of parental school choice would organize and build awareness of their position. I would be happy to attend community listening sessions on this issue. It’s a Beloit issue, and it’s important that there are local opportunities for the community to discuss their opinions and concerns,” she said.
Rock County Christian School Principal Bob Cerniglia said the first question interested parents often ask him when they call the school is, “What’s your tuition?”
“Oftentimes we don’t get to a second question. In terms of unemployment and poverty rates, it’s very difficult for many people to make ends meet,” Cerniglia said.
Rock County Christian School has two campuses, its preschool through fifth grade south of the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport in Janesville and a sixth through twelfth grade campus in Beloit. He said transportation is not an issue, as the students who attend the Janesville campus catch a Rock County Christian School bus in Beloit and vice versa.
Cerniglia said he would like more families that contact the school to be able to attend. He doesn’t believe there would be a significant influx of students.
“We aren’t going to replace Beloit public schools,” he said. “We’d help a few families and students.”
He said some of the offerings, such as Advanced Placement classes at Beloit Memorial High School, would be a huge benefit for many students. However, there are other students who could benefit from a small school setting.
Cerniglia, who is retired from the School District of Beloit, said his son graduated from Beloit Memorial High School and his two daughters graduated from Rock County Christian School. He said both are good schools in different ways, depending on student needs.
“I don’t think tons of people would come to our school for the voucher program, but the people that want to would have that opportunity. It gives parents one more option. I think it would be very helpful to some families. To me it’s about the students. One size does not fit all,” he said.
Jim Bender, president of the advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin, said he disagrees with school district officials’ comments that voucher schools exclude the poor. He said transportation can, and sometimes is, provided by voucher schools for students.
In the case of Beloit he said private schools in Janesville could expand, private schools which have closed in Beloit could re-open or new schools could emerge in the market. He also stressed that Milwaukee Public School Choice serves almost exclusively African American and Latino populations, and disagrees with any comments made by the school district of Beloit that school choice would hurt minorities.
He disagrees with the viewpoint that Beloit needs more time to improve.
“Why should parents have to wait for the schools to get better? It’s not like this snuck up on them. It’s been this way for a long time. I just don’t know why parents have to wait to get access to their own tax dollars to get better access for their students,” he said. “If the schools are getting a lot better, and are providing a perfect environment for students of Beloit, then there is nothing to fear. If nobody wants to leave, nobody will take a voucher.”