School choice program needs some new business advocates

    If your only source of information on the issue of school choice was the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), you might think that school choice is an evil program that is destroying the fabric of our society.

    If your only source of information on the issue of school choice was local conservative talk radio, you might think that WEAC itself is an evil organization that is destroying the fabric of our society.

    And then there’s the truth.

    According to a new report released this morning, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) graduated at a higher rate than students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) over the past five years.

    The study was conducted by John Warren, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, on behalf of School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that advocates for school choice.

    The higher graduation rate at choice schools in Milwaukee should not be surprising. For admission in most choice schools, an adult guardian must take action to apply for admission on behalf of the student. The fact that the student has such an engaged person in his or her life is a distinct advantage over many of the students in the general MPS population.

    And if you’ve ever toured a choice school such as the Milwaukee College Preparatory School, you’ve noticed how some choice schools have superior models, better practices and more effective results than typical public schools.

    Still, because of extreme forces on the left and the right, school choice has become a political lightning rod. Those forces would have us believe that school choice is an either/or proposition.

    Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, disagrees. He believes an effective school choice program and a healthy public school system can co-exist in the same city. In fact, Sheehy believes both kinds of schools can work to make each other better.

    That’s why Sheehy and Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, are on a mission with a sharp sense of urgency.

    Milwaukee has long been ground zero for the school choice movement. The MPCP is the nation’s oldest and largest program to provide public support for parents to enroll their children in private schools.
    "That makes us a target. We’ve got a big target on our backs," Mitchell says.

    Sheehy and Mitchell see a rising tide of obstacles to the progress and even the survival of the school choice movement in Milwaukee:
    (1) It’s a generational thing. When the Wisconsin school choice movement was launched in the early 1990s, some key players bought into its merits and pushed it over the goal line. Those players included: former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who wanted to point a sharp stick in the eye of the teachers’ union; former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who was a willing accomplice; some powerful business leaders, such as former CEOs Richard Abdoo (Wisconsin Energy Corp.) and James Keyes (Johnson Controls Inc.); and some educational visionaries such as Mitchell and former MPS superintendent Howard Fuller.
    Thompson is now playing corporate board Bingo. Norquist is in Chicago. Abdoo and Keyes have retired. That leaves people like Mitchell and Fuller fighting the good fight.
    "We need a new generation of business leaders to champion this cause," Sheehy says. "Giving increased school choice to parents is not a passing fad for us. It is something we view as a matter of economic life or death for our region."
    (2) Unlike MPS, the school choice movement has no steadfast supporting institution in the political realm. Truth be told, there are many myopic state legislators from out-state parts of Wisconsin and the suburbs who are afraid to even step foot in the big city of Milwaukee. They see no political value in advocating to spend their constituents’ tax dollars on educating students in Milwaukee. Some of those folks have looked me squarely in the eye and said, "It’s not our problem. It’s a Milwaukee problem." And if those legislators stand up and say that school choice in Milwaukee must die, they will face little political consequence. Parents in Milwaukee’s inner city, with their children’s futures hanging in the balance, can’t vote in those out-state districts.
    (3) The political winds are blowing, and they’re blowing hard. The Democrats could easily gain control of both houses of the state legislature in November. WEAC lines the campaign coffers of many of those Democrats. WEAC could put pressure on those Democrats to cut back or even eliminate the school choice program. Will those Democrats have the legislative fortitude to stand up against one of their largest benefactors?
    Some WEAC officials believe they have a vested interest in minimizing school choice. After all, choice schools tend not to hire union teachers and tend not to pay union salaries.
    That’s one key reason it costs $13,000 to educate a child in a public school, $7,700 to educate a child in a charter school and $6,500 to educate a child in private schools that participate in the choice program.

    Perhaps what is needed here is some diplomacy. Perhaps WEAC should send a team of its members to a school such the Milwaukee College Preparatory School to learn about and replicate some new best practices. And perhaps the radio boys should spend just one day in an MPS classroom. My guess is they would stop complaining that teachers are overpaid and incompetent, and they would realize how important these teachers are in our society.

    Alas, maybe they wouldn’t. But I digress.

    From Sheehy’s perspective, the school choice program and MPS can and should co-exist in Milwaukee. He says the development of tomorrow’s workforce is critical to the economic future of the region. He’s asking for a new generation of business executives to step forward and join the cause.

    To learn more and to get involved, visit www.geteducatednow.com.

    Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.

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