School Choice: A Catalyst for Change

Published June 1, 1999

The clash over school choice in Milwaukee has attracted the attention of observers from across the United States for over a decade, but it recently also caught the eye of reporter Randall Denley from one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers, The Ottawa Citizen. Looking beyond the battle’s ongoing arguments, rhetoric, and legal hurdles, Denley suggests that “the real story is in the schools. . . . They provide a potent demonstration of how parent choice can hold public education to account and force it to improve.”

One of the schools in Milwaukee that accepts voucher students is Brother Bob Smith’s Messmer High School. With a student body roughly 80 percent minority and 60 percent low-income, Messmer boasts a 97 percent attendance rate and sends 85 percent of its graduates to college. While only one-third of black students graduate from the city’s schools, Smith’s school graduates almost all of its black students–at a significantly lower cost per student than the public schools.

“It’s a success story that shows that disadvantaged students can be educated when the school approaches the task with something other than defeatism,” writes Denley. By contrast, he notes the public school system has launched numerous reform plans during the past decade, with little effect other than bringing down the annual dropout rate from 17 percent to 12 percent. The average grade point average is still a D+ and reading scores still are unacceptably low for black students.

Another voucher school is the Marva Collins Preparatory School, where the student body reflects local demographics. Despite the fact that a quarter of the students have learning disabilities, almost all of the school’s students read at least one level above their grade. Principal Robb Rauh’s aim is to instill self-esteem in his students not as an end in itself, but as a byproduct of learning.

“These are students from the poorest homes, labeled for failure in the regular system,” says Denley. Yet in the voucher schools, they succeed. “The people benefitting from school choice in Milwaukee are almost uniformly black and poor,” he concludes.

Denley dismisses the claim of public school supporters that private schools are “skimming the cream” of the students from public schools, noting “there isn’t much cream to be had” in Milwaukee. He leaves his last word for the union-dominated education system’s implacable resistance to change.

“No cost is too much to fight parental choice, no court too high to appeal to,” he notes. “It all seems out of proportion when one remembers that all parents want is a decent education for their kids and the right to choose who provides it.”

Teachers Give Low Grades to Edgewood Board and Superintendent

Teachers in San Antonio’s Edgewood School District gave poor performance ratings to the school board and Superintendent Munoz, according to a recent independent study commissioned by district officials. The primary impetus for the study was CEO Horizon, the $50 million district-wide private voucher program that offered vouchers to all low-income students in the district last fall. Of the 14,000 students in the district, 13,000 were eligible and nearly 900 students accepted the offer and left the district.

Facing a potential loss of state funding because of the Horizon program, Edgewood trustees last fall hired MGT of America Inc. at a cost of $120,000 to recommend ways to improve performance and reduce costs. After three months of surveying employees, auditing records, and gauging management issues and employee opinion, MGT reported back to the board with its recommendations. Cost saving suggestions included:

  • closing three elementary schools to save roughly $600,000 in operating costs;
  • relocating two special high school magnet programs to the Communications and Fine Arts Academy;
  • eliminating one assistant superintendent, the directors of elementary and secondary curriculum, and others employees to save another $289,000.

In its survey of employee opinion in the district, MGT found that the performance of the school board and superintendent were rated poorly by teachers, principals, and central office administrators. Teachers also gave a poor grade to parents for their low level of participation in school and efforts to help their children do better in school.

In a prepared statement, district officials said: “We will carefully analyze the content, findings, and recommendations of the study and implement the suggestions that will help us meet the goals and mission of the district.” District officials and Board President Manuel Garza did not return calls seeking comment.

“It’s only valuable if the people who receive [the study] are willing to look at themselves and take an honest assessment,” said Alan Shoho, professor of education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “But if they are like the ostrich sticking its head in the ground . . . then they probably have wasted $120,000.”

Hartford Program Doubles in Size

Thanks to a recent donation of an additional $1 million, the CEO Connecticut program this fall will more than double its scholarship awards to Hartford elementary school children. The new funds will be used over a four_year period to provide approximately 250 K_5th grade students with the opportunity to attend a private or religious school chosen by their parents or guardians. This brings the total number of scholarships funded by CEO Connecticut to 450, up from the initial 200 awarded in Hartford this past fall.

“The CEO scholarship programs in Connecticut have been more successful than we even dreamed of a few years ago,” stated Dr. Lewis Andrews, chairman of the board of CEO Connecticut. “Increasing generosity for such a worthy cause is allowing us to expand this year.”