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School choice conference in Wisconsin shows movement offers array of options

To learn more about school choice, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity [sponsor of Watchdog Wire - North Carolina] invited me to attend the Milwaukee School Choice Conference in early November. I joined 35 other citizen journalists from around the country to learn about how low and middle-income families, as well as families desiring schools with special education options, have more educational opportunities than ever before.

Milwaukee is an epicenter for public school choice programs; for example, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the nation’s longest running voucher program. But the city also has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation.

During the conference, we visited two different and exceptional parental choice schools in Milwaukee working towards narrowing the gaps in student achievement.

HOPE Christian High School, serves low-income African-American students through a state voucher system. In fact, “ninety-six percent of HOPE students are eligible for free or reduced school meals… and nearly all also receive vouchers.”

Two students there gave us impromptu speeches on how they arrived at the school with bad attitudes and the inability to get along with authorities. Both young women are now finishing their senior year, and are well-adjusted looking toward a bright future. They are a tribute to the loving, yet disciplined environment that pushed them to their full potential.

PLUM2GThe other school we toured was Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a public charter K3-8 serving low-income Latino students in the city. They are part of a larger agency that has elder care, family care and human services programs. The excitement of learning was evident as our host showed us several classrooms devoted to the arts, music and practical science.

Public/private partnerships in education reform have created many options for parents and their children to attend the school of their choice. As a result, taxpayer dollars fund not only traditional public schools, but also public charters and privately run independent schools that take government issued vouchers like HOPE schools.

In North Carolina, charter schools account for 5% of all public schools, but the numbers are increasing since a cap was removed by the legislature in 2011 [as of 2013 there are 127 public charters].

We also have a new voucher law. In a blog post on the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice,  president and CEO Robert Enlow [also an attendee of the Milwaukee conference] is quoted saying “Although a small program, this is an important move toward big change in North Carolina’s education system…Other states’ experiences show school choice starts small but grows over time to include more families.”

Here’s a list of views on school choice taken from a Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast report from Greensboro, NC, March 2011:  

  • Beyond such immediate effects as improved test scores, researchers report that students attending charter schools are more likely than students attending traditional public schools to graduate high school and enter college (Booker et al., 2009; Zimmer et al., 2009).
  • Parents are typically satisfied with charter programs (Zimmer et al., 2009). However, access to these programs may be problematic. Although some minority students may be placed through voucher programs, access is seldom improved for students with disabilities or poorly educated parents (Lauen, 2009; Zimmer et al., 2009).
  • [C]harter schools do offer expanded educational opportunities to students and encourage educational innovation (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2009; Booker et al., 2009; Gleason et al., 2010; Zimmer et al., 2009).
  • Parents of students receiving scholarships also indicated higher satisfaction with their child’s educational experience (Wolf et al., 2010). This tends to be the case in charters as well (Gleason et al., 2010). Similar positive and mixed results have been witnessed in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the nation’s longest running voucher program (Witte et al., 2010).

Expanding parents’ choices for their children’s education through opportunities like public charters  and vouchers characterizes the school choice movement.

Ann Kane

Ann Kane is the Editor of Watchdog Wire - North Carolina. Contact her at NorthCarolina@WatchdogWire.com to learn how to get involved with citizen journalism in the Tarheel State. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnKane1111

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