National K-12 Summit Highlights Milwaukee Success

Published December 1, 2006

School choice and charter school advocates from across the country gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in early October for the State Policy Network’s (SPN) first-of-its-kind K-12 Education Reform Summit.

The summit, held October 4-5, was co-sponsored by the Alliance for School Choice and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

“One of the summit goals was to re-energize school choice advocates working in the trenches for real reforms,” said SPN President Tracie Sharp. SPN is a professional service organization for America’s state-based, free-market think tank community.

For local school choice advocates in Wisconsin, the summit was an opportunity to share Milwaukee’s success story. Earlier in the year, school choice proponents were victorious in their efforts to raise the enrollment cap for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to 22,500 students.

“Too few people understand that giving families educational options is key to the success of our cities,” said Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, an advocacy group based in the city. “The summit gave us the chance to talk with more than 400 activists about the positive impact of parent choice on families, public schools, and the community.”

Free to Create

Summit attendees were treated to tours of several schools participating in the voucher program, located in some of Milwaukee’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. For some school administrators, locations like these are critical to their mission.

“We had the chance to move the school, but we decided we needed to stay. The kids we serve are from this neighborhood. What kind of message would it send to say, ‘We want to educate you, but we want to take you out of your neighborhood’?” said Alvaro Garcia-Velez, president of Notre Dame Middle School (NDMS), a 10-year-old, all-girls school whose slogan is “Girls Rule!” NDMS accepts public-funded vouchers for eligible students.

Summit attendee Chris Derry, president of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, was encouraged by the visit to the schools.

“Seeing Milwaukee’s inner-city schools firsthand was an eye-opener for me,” Derry said. “Once you’ve seen an orderly learning environment in the midst of urban chaos, you can’t say vouchers won’t work outside Milwaukee.”

Allowing Innovation

After learning in 1996 that juvenile crime in Milwaukee doubles between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Garcia-Velez and his wife, NDMS Principal Mary Garcia-Velez, instituted a mandatory after-school program that keeps students busy, active, and safe until 6 p.m. each day. Garcia-Velez attributes part of the school’s success, evidenced by its waiting list for enrollment, to the freedom he has to be creative with such programs.

“I think a lot of people get into education thinking they will have flexibility to try new things, but unfortunately it is often the case that new ideas get squashed,” Garcia-Velez said.

In addition to offering after-school programming and summer camps, NDMS makes an effort to monitor its students beyond middle school. If students have academic or attendance trouble in later grades, the school intervenes by offering continued inclusion in the after-school program and working with students’ families to encourage school attendance.

Of NDMS’s 152 graduates to date, 95 percent have graduated from high school, and 76 percent have gone on to college. According to the June 22, 2006 edition of Education Week, the Milwaukee Public Schools system graduates 43.1 percent of its students.

NDMS receives $6,500 per student through the public-funded voucher program, well below the average state spending of $10,367 on each public school student during the 2004-05 school year.

Coming Together

According to SPN, 185 organizations from 44 states were represented at the conference.

The large turnout reflects a growing movement of education reformers seeking to give parents more control over their children’s education. According to The Heritage Foundation’s “School Choice: 2006 Progress Report,” 12 states and the District of Columbia now have a total of 21 school choice programs for K-12 education.

The report’s author, Heritage Foundation policy analyst Dan Lips, attended the summit.

Lips said, “2006 was a successful year for school choice, and the Milwaukee education reform summit really showed how momentum is building across the nation. It provided an important opportunity for researchers and school choice advocates from around the country to share ideas and compare strategies. That kind of collaboration and information sharing will pay dividends in 2007 and beyond.”

The summit had three strategic core objectives: leadership training for the school reform movement, coalition building among like-minded reform groups, and networking opportunities for peer learning.

Matt Warner ([email protected]) is the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education Task Force director.

For more information …

“School Choice: 2006 Progress Report,” by Dan Lips and Evan Feinberg, published by The Heritage Foundation on September 18, 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20150.

“Diplomas Count: An Essential Guide to Graduation Policy and Rates,” Education Week, June 22, 2006,