WCRIS – Catholic Wisconsin

During election season, when campaigns are in full tilt, we hear lots of information about the perceived motives of the other side. It’s a lot to wade through to discern what is accurate and what to believe.

One thing you can be sure about: whomever wins, the Wisconsin Council of

Religious and Independent Schools will work with the winning office holder to ensure the viability of Catholic schools, and the safety and education of the children they serve.

We at WCRIS, since 1974, have worked tirelessly with elected officials of every political party. We aim to accomplish goals that help the Catholic schools that so many of you worked to create and continue to sustain. Thank you. Your sacrifices make our work possible.

Let me share one example of the work that our non-partisan status allows us to accomplish. It’s also a reminder of the positive and concrete things that can be done when people set aside their partisan interests and figure out what is best for children.

Congress updated the nation’s premier education law in 2016 to create a private school ombudsman to ensure children in private schools receive all the services entitled to them under the law. Ombudsman is a fancy Scandinavian word that has come to mean neutral arbiter, or watchdog.

Enter WCRIS. Working with the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, we found a provision in the federal law that allowed an outside entity to provide the ombudsman function. So, rather than have the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction service our schools, we thought WCRIS could do that for the state.

Our colleagues at the Council for American Private Education and other friendly groups laughed off the idea as impossible. Officials at the United States Department of Education were skeptical.

Nevertheless, we brought the idea to then DPI-Superintendent Tony Evers. With his approval, we were able to present the idea to then-Gov. Scott Walker. One a Democrat. The other a Republican. If it had been a few months later, their battle for the governorship would likely have sunk the idea.

But the Author of all Time was in charge. These two politicians believed the idea would work for children and so it happened.

As a result, for the last four years, WCRIS has been paid by the DPI to provide an ombudsman for the state’s nonpublic school children. Our ombudsman, Abigail Pavela, is a graduate of Catholic schools and therefore “gets” their mission.

Now, that doesn’t mean the private schools get everything they want. Often, Pavela has to advise our schools that they can’t have what they want because the law doesn’t allow it. Ombudsman Pavela is equally challenging to the public school districts. Often, they are told the law requires them to provide certain services to private school students they didn’t bother to offer.

Everyone wins sometimes. Both the public and private schools are grateful for the clarity brought by an outside party.

We are the envy of the nation. No other state has been able to create such a public-private partnership. Instead, there is chronic turnover amongst ombudsmen. While Wisconsin has had one ombudsman from the start, our friends in Indiana have been through six. And our counterparts in other states report indifference and inaction when it comes to solving their problems with student access to federal programs.

This is made possible by our colleagues at the DPI, who work diligently with WCRIS to make the partnership function on a daily basis. Ombudsman Pavela’s work would not be possible if the DPI staff was undercutting or contradicting her.

So, we look happily to January when the elections will be over, and we get down to business in a fresh legislative session with new and old elected officials. One thing we’ll do is make sure they all know that our 105,000 students and our 10,000 staffers move between the public and private schools.

In fact, we’ll tell them the vast majority of our students attend K-8 schools and graduate on to public high schools. We have no interest in sending our precious children to academically broken public high schools.

Nor are we interested in taking over public education, as some claim. Actually, only about 10 percent of the state’s school children attend nonpublic K-12 schools. Instead, we believe we are leaven for the world. Our schools are beacons of hope that show how to grow a human being into a whole person by nurturing their body, mind and spirit.

Sure, there will be differences of opinion. And we will not shirk from advocating for the freedom to follow our religious beliefs and values in all that our schools do. But somewhere amid the tussle of disagreement, we’ll locate an issue that will be good for kids.

And we at WCRIS have the track record of identifying lawmakers with the ability to lay down their partisan ideology and move into the future to help all our state’s school children. This shared work embodies our state motto: Forward.