‘Choice’ not a given in SuperiorNearly 200 signed postcards are on their way to Madison, courtesy of the Superior school district.
By: By Emily Kram and Shelley Nelsonfirstname.lastname@example.orgemail@example.com, , Superior Telegram
Nearly 200 signed postcards are on their way to Madison, courtesy of the Superior school district.
The postcards flooded in this week as part of a letter-writing campaign to fight the proposed expansion of the Parental Choice Program, commonly known as the school voucher program.
Superior is listed among nine communities eligible for the expansion, but according to Gov. Scott Walker, school vouchers won’t be coming to Superior without community will.
In an interview with the Superior Telegram, Walker said the expansion of the Parental Choice Program, if it survives the budget process, is specifically targeted to areas where he’s heard interest from parents and some private school officials.
Superior has a limited number of private schools, and reaction from the community in the past two weeks has been largely negative.
“We didn’t include Superior because we targeted given districts, whether that’s Beloit, Green Bay or Madison,” Walker said. “For us, there would have to be an approval process that we put in place, plus a minimum number of students that we put in place.”
The section of the governor’s budget proposal addressing the Parental Choice Program lists two criteria for school district eligibility. The district’s enrollment must exceed 4,000 students, and at least two schools in the district must have failing scores on their annual school report cards.
If a district meets both criteria, vouchers will be available after 20 students notify the Department of Public Instruction of their intent to participate in the program.
The Superior school district has nearly 5,000 students, and Superior High School and Superior Middle School both received grades of “meets few expectations” on their school report cards.
The high school fell one-tenth of a point below the acceptable score, and the middle school was six-tenths of a point below.
Walker said Superior technically meets the criteria for the Parental Choice Program, but providing vouchers here isn’t part of his plan.
Superior school district administrator Janna Stevens was shocked to hear that Superior was no longer being considered for the voucher expansion.
“We didn’t get anything from the governor’s office,” Stevens said. “I haven’t heard one thing.”
In the past, Stevens said, communication from the governor’s office has not been great. She usually contacts the Department of Instruction for information, but she’s not heard anything there either.
Eight other school districts besides Superior meet the criteria outlined in Walker’s budget proposal: Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Waukesha and West Allis-West Milwaukee. The expansion of the voucher program would be capped at 500 students statewide for 2013-14 and 1,000 for 2014-15.
Walker said his reasoning behind expanding the Parental Choice Program was to provide tools to turn failing schools around and give parents an option until those schools are meeting expectations.
Superior also finds itself in a unique situation because of its proximity to Minnesota.
Private school alternatives in Superior are few. The city has three options currently: Cathedral School, serving grades K-8; Maranatha Academy, K-12; and Twin Ports Baptist School.
Duluth, just across the border, has several more options for charter or private education, including Marshall School, with nearly 500 students in grades 4-12.
When asked if Superior parents would be able to use vouchers to send their children to schools in Duluth, Walker said that was not his intent.
“Legally, whether or not there would be a prohibition, but for all practical purposes that wouldn’t be an option,” Walker said. “My hope is that each time there is a report card that comes out — they’re renewed each year — there would be fewer and fewer schools eligible for the Choice program. Not that I have a problem with the Choice program, but my goal is to improve schools.”
Even if the Choice program did extend to Duluth, vouchers are not guaranteed to cover the full cost of tuition.
Under Walker’s budget proposal, voucher payments would be increased in 2014-15 to $7,050 for students in grades K-8 and $7,856 in grades 9-12. Tuition at Marshall School for the 2012-13 school year is $13,200 for grades 4-6 and $14,700 for grades 7-12, according to the school’s website.
The proposal has seen significant push-back since Walker gave his 2013-15 budget address on Feb. 20.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, denounced the governor’s plan at a Feb. 22 press conference in Superior.
Jauch called the potential expansion of the Parental Choice Program “selfish and senseless and poorly thought out.”
He said it was illogical to put an entire district into the voucher program when only two schools failed to meet expectations. Under that setup, Jauch said, students from a successful school could still apply for vouchers.
Walker contradicted that view, saying schools would be ineligible for the voucher program once they receive passing marks on their annual school report cards.
“The idea behind expanding the choice program beyond Milwaukee and Racine was in districts where there a number of schools failing … we want to give them tools to turn them around, but by the same token, we want to give parents an alternative to choose a viable alternative,” Walker said. “By the time the next report card comes out, those that are meeting expectations or exceeding them or substantially exceeding them, they would no longer be eligible in that community.”
School report cards were issued for the first time in 2012. The new batch of report cards — with this year’s data — is expected in October. The voucher program expansion is slated for the start of the 2013-14 school year.
Superior may not be on the list of the expansion, but Stevens encouraged the public to learn more about the Parental Choice Program nonetheless.
“I still believe that vouchers should not be expanded in the state at all,” Stevens said. “This is something that will harm public education.”
More information on the Parental Choice Program may be found at www.superior.schoolfusion.us. A link to documents about the voucher program can be found on the homepage.