Is it the right choice? Governor Walker proposes expanding school choice program, lifting cap

MADISON (WITI) -- Governor Scott Walker has proposed expanding the school choice program across the state of Wisconsin with no caps. His critics say it could destroy public education as we know it. So is an expansion of the voucher schools program the right choice?

Sometimes a small gesture makes all the difference. In the heart of Milwaukee's inner-city, a place where issues like poverty and crime seem so overwhelming, St. Marcus School Principal John Boche offers a lesson in how a simple handshake or pat on the back can help to make a real connection with young people.

"When a child arrives, they get a handshake or a high five or a hug, and something positive said," St. Marcus School Superintendent Henry Tyson said.

It is the philosophy of Tyson -- a British-born, Northwestern-educated teacher with a missionary's zeal for bringing values-based education to the central city.

"Amongst particularly our poor, African-American kids, we have an epic crisis," Tyson said.

Tyson is as charismatic as he is controversial.

"What I long for is our city leadership, particularly our mayor, who's been mayor for a long time and has failed to address this issue," Tyson said.

The issue as he sees it is a public school system that has been failed by elected officials, and is failing its students.

"St. Marcus' elementary students are an 80-80 school. That means 80 percent or more are minority students. 80 percent or more are low-income, and yet, they have almost uniform ability of their students to go on and graduate from high school. That doesn't happen in most schools -- not only in Milwaukee but also most urban areas across the state of Wisconsin," Governor Scott Walker said.

Governor Walker is using St. Marcus School as an example of what he believes could happen across the state if the voucher schools program, formally known as the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program were to be expanded.

"To me, the ultimate goal of Parental Choice is put parents in charge," Governor Walker said.

Walker wants to introduce the dynamic of the free market into the cauldron of state-funded education.

"I'm not looking to pick winners and losers between public and private schools out there. I want to make sure that the biggest winners are parents and their students," Governor Walker said.

The goal is to drive academic gains through competition. In Wisconsin, the voucher schools program began 25 years ago with a limited purpose: a way to allow inner-city students attending failing schools to receive a better education.

"It was this tiny little program. But gradually, the principle kept being extended beyond that," UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee said.

Right now, Wisconsin's voucher schools program is capped at 1,000 students. He's arguing vouchers will have a larger impact if they become more widespread. This year, in an address to the Legislature, Governor Walker proposed expanding the program by lifting all caps on enrollment.

"We will ensure every child -- regardless of background or birthright -- has access to a quality education," Walker said.

It is a change driven in part by his lack of faith in the government. Some see pure politics.

"Every single child will receive an amazing education if we can just hone in on what's best for children and not get bogged down with ideology," Mequon-Thiensville School District Superintendent Dr. Demond Means said.

Means, a graduate of the Milwaukee Public Schools system and now the superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District is a critic of expansion of the voucher schools program.

"By increasing the voucher program, you're going to siphon off money from traditional public schools. We know in essence there will be a creation of a second, parallel public school system," Means said.

Means says he's concerned that voucher schools aren't held to the same standards and oversight public schools are. For Tyson, though, the accountability of public schools -- particularly Milwaukee's central city schools is also open to question.

"30,000 children with average reading proficiency of under 8 percent. Anyone who thinks parents should not have a choice to find a decent education for their children, I think are crazy," Tyson said.

At St. Marcus School, nearly all students go on to graduate high school -- more than doubling the graduation rates of some nearby public schools.

"Simply put, a child walks in our doors and they have to succeed. Regardless of background, regardless of community, parent structure. It's a philosophy that says if a child fails, it's our failure," Tyson said.

Everywhere you turn, the halls of St. Marcus School are filled with motivational messages and this slogan:

"'I am third' means God first, others second. I am third. And when we talked about culture -- that phrase alone -- if you can get people to buy into it, you will have an awesome culture," Tyson said.

Tyson has instilled a spirit and an energy into education. Teachers use an innovative style known as the "knowledge is power" or KIP system. It involves a whirlwind of clapping, chanting and tracking their method to make sure every student locks eyes with whomever is speaking.

Letriana Neal says she moved her kids to St. Marcus because the public schools weren't providing a good enough education for her children.

"I felt like my kids were failing," Neal said.

Neal applied for the voucher schools program so she could send her kids to St. Marcus.

"Choice is definitely something I'm grateful for," Neal said.

Neal's daughter Kelsie, once struggling is now thriving -- having earned a place on the high honor roll.

"My favorite subject is math," 14-year-old Kelsie Wright said.

For every success like St. Marcus, there are many more failing voucher schools. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, over the last decade, more than two-thirds of the schools eliminated from the voucher schools program were open for five years or fewer.

"Rapid expansion of the voucher system just isn't warranted by the data," Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said.

Evers, the state's highest education official says voucher schools didn't help close the achievement gap.

"If you look at the overall achievement level within the choice program in Milwaukee, it's been an experiment for almost 20 years and it's no different than it is at MPS, so to say it's a best practice I think is a stretch," Evers said.

In the last 10 years, the state has poured nearly $140 million into choice schools that ended up being thrown out of the program or closed altogether. When students attend voucher schools, they bring with them a government check for $7,200 -- money that comes out of the traditional budget of a school district.

"I think traditional public schools are the cornerstone of democracy. If traditional public schools don't work well, then our nation doesn't work well," Evers said.

Public school district boundaries have long been viewed as sacred. They prevent poorer urban students, for example, from enrolling in richer suburban schools, but now, the voucher movement is gaining steam.

"The people who are advancing parental school choice won that fight. They won it in the Legislature. They won it with the governor, and they won it in the courts," Mordecai Lee said.

Henry Tyson says alternative options for parents are crucial if education is to lift people out of poverty. Sometimes the smallest details of the day lead to the biggest lessons in life.

"The great challenge from Milwaukee as a city is are we willing to recognize -- from the politicians on down -- to recognize what works? To stop making excuses, and to replicate what we know works?" Tyson said.