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Expand School Choice for All Wisconsin Families, Major Report Urges

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Many Wisconsin children “have lost up to a year of progress in districts that paid more attention to demands from organizations than parents,” the report says.

All Wisconsin parents deserve the right to choose the best school for their children at a time that the pandemic has sparked a great parental awakening in the state, according to a major policy report on Wisconsin school choice released by Common Sense Wisconsin.

The report, issued August 17, 2021, calls for universal, informed parental school choice throughout Wisconsin to improve educational outcomes, along with other measures designed to empower parents. It builds on the past successes of the school choice movement in the state.

The organization is calling for “bold initiatives that wrest control over education from decision-makers in Madison and instead put parents fully in control of their children’s opportunities,” a press release says. Read the full POWER blueprint here.

The push to expand school choice as an option for all Wisconsin families is focused on putting students’ educational needs first at a time when many parents throughout the state, of all political backgrounds, are increasingly concerned about public schools’ handling of the pandemic and controversial issues like critical race theory.

The POWER policy blueprint was authored by Bill McCoshen, Rose Fernandez, George Mitchell, and Joe Handrick. McCoshen, a veteran lobbyist who was former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Commerce Secretary, has said he’s considering a run for governor. Mitchell is a public policy consultant who is well-known in the school choice movement. Handrick is a former state legislator who is the executive director of Common Sense Wisconsin. Fernandez is an educational reform advocate who is a Common Sense Wisconsin policy board member, as is Mitchell.

Expand school choice

Many Wisconsin children “have lost up to a year of progress in districts that paid more attention to demands from organizations than parents,” the paper notes. “Nearly everyone knows of a student who faltered during COVID. Too often we watched as our K-12 system held parents at arm’s length and forgot that schools exist to provide education to kids. Our system provides too few options.”

The most important action the state can take — for kids, families, communities, employers, and taxpayers — is to “provide the widest possible range of education options and put parents in charge of choosing what is best for their children,” the report says.

Expand School Choice for All Wisconsin Families

The POWER report recommends:

  • Promoting the existing open enrollment process to inform parents of their options.
  • Providing curriculum transparency so parents can enroll or transfer with a full understanding of what’s being taught.
  • Eliminating the per-pupil funding disparities between choice, charter and brick and mortar students.
  • Expand school choice to all areas of the state and eliminating the income limits for participants.
  • Permitting alternative licensure, and loan forgiveness/reduced tuition for Education students who teach in Wisconsin.

The Pandemic Has ‘Exposed Glaring & Fundamental Weaknesses in Our System,’ the Report Says

The policy report says that the pandemic “has exposed glaring and fundamental weaknesses in our system. This is visible at school board meetings across the state. Parents are turning out in large numbers, pressing for clear answers. There has been an awakening.” The plan would disrupt the power structure to empower parents with options.

“Parents are not the enemy of education policy, they are the engine,” said Bill McCoshen, chair of the CSW Policy Board. “In the wake of the pandemic, parents across the state saw –many for the first time–the strengths and weaknesses of our k-12 education system in Wisconsin and many were not happy. Moving forward, they hold the key to changing things for the better.”

“We need to give every Wisconsin family the right to choose the schools best for their children,” said McCoshen. “All kids must have a choice from among all options, whether they are traditional public, private, home, charter, or virtual schools. And, all kids must have the option to attend their local public school in-person, in the setting that best suits them.”

The policy report quotes Ronald Reagan as saying, “Choice in education is no mere abstraction. Like its economic cousin, free enterprise, and its political cousin, democracy, it affords hope and opportunity.”

Handrick said the POWER agenda is built around three Pillars of Reform.

“We need to trust parents and empower them with options and information; We need to provide equal educational support and opportunities to all kids; and teachers and administrators need the freedom and tools to improve educational outcomes,” Handrick said.

The report asks these key questions:

  • Why is nearly half of education spending outside the classroom?
  • Why do some schools have substantial autonomy while most are mired in a daunting, top-down regulatory nightmare?
  • Why is a child’s educational opportunity dictated by their zip code?
  • Why do we continue to spend more and more without demanding that expenditures be directly linked to better outcomes for students?

The report says that student learning “must be the goal of all efforts, every day, in every Wisconsin school. Every policy, every expense, every instructional practice, every decision must be based on its impact on children’s learning. With that singular goal in mind, Wisconsin families should be anticipating a new school year with optimism.”

According to the paper, “We need to give every Wisconsin family the right to choose the schools best for their children. All kids must have a choice from among all options, whether they are traditional public, private, home schools, charter, or virtual schools. And all kids must have the ability to attend their local public school in-person. The Wisconsin policy that has produced proven results for a limited number of families should be extended to all.”

The authors say: “No family should be excluded. Options must be available to every child growing up in Wisconsin without regard to where their families live, how much money they make, or what challenges they face. A system accountable to parents will reward schools and teachers for success and innovation. When parents are free to leave, the school is motivated to earn their enrollment and so has reason to listen and work with them. Improvements come from that collaboration. This encourages districts to attract and retain students. The competition for students is a driver of quality like none other. It lets parents vote with their feet and choose schools that work best for their children.”

The report notes that “Education spending in the past five decades has more than doubled in Wisconsin (in real dollars) but the quality has declined. A doubling in resources is not enough for our Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction. They continue to falsely claim that taxpayers shortchange public schools.”

Poverty in Wisconsin extends from urban areas to small towns. “In an economy where thousands of employers are scrambling to find workers and most new jobs require at least a high school education, a majority of Wisconsin students are not proficient in core academic subjects. Thousands of students in the University of Wisconsin system require remedial math and English instruction,” the report says.

The report gives these statistics from ElevateTeachers.org:

• One in four high school graduates reads at a 10-year-old reading level.

• 38% of all Americans lack basic math skills.

• US millennials have the worst educational outcomes in the developed world.

• Because of grade inflation, many parents are not aware their child is performing below grade level. For example, in a national survey 90% of parents said their child was at or above grade level when, in fact, only 30% were. In 2014 a school in Ohio had 72 valedictorians out of a class of 222 students.

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