Private schools across the state are readying themselves for the new school year onslaught of students clamoring through their doors. The influx actually started mid-August for some Lutheran schools, and they’ll be done by Memorial Day. Most Catholic schools are starting now and will run through mid-June.
There to help them is our association, the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, which was founded informally in the 1960s when it was illegal to transport a private school student in a yellow public school bus.
Our precious children were left on cold, dark winter mornings, huddled together on the corner waiting for the private school carpool as a yellow bus would fly past and ultimately rest at the public school up the street from the private school. It would have been so easy, in most cases, for the public schools to do the right thing and give our kids a safe ride.
But they wouldn’t. So, with the support of the state’s bishops, the superintendents of the Catholic dioceses reached out to their Lutheran and other Christian school counterparts and worked together to amend the state constitution in 1967 to make school transportation a constitutional right. We still are one of a handful of states that provides that benefit to our private school children.
Fast forward 20 years to the late 1980s, and it was the same story with parental choice in education. Why not acknowledge that kids aren’t widgets and families aren’t always adequately served by the public school assembly line?
After all, parents asked, if the state is going to require me to educate my child through a compulsory education law, then why can’t they facilitate choices that match my family’s values or my child’s unique needs?
Enter WCRIS (say: ‘W Chris’) again, which worked to successfully create and expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to include religious schools. We’ve been advocating at the state capitol since the early 1990s to expand parental choice to all private school children statewide. We monitor and protect the programs so our schools can work on what they do best: educating our precious children.
That work continues today with our vibrant WCRIS staff of five and our growing schools, thanks to what the pandemic revealed to parents about what was really happening (or more likely not happening) in public schools.
Today, our staff supports the work of nearly 800 schools, enrolling more than 100,250 kids across the state. We represent every major religious and independent school system. WCRIS is also the only state group that is a member of the Council for American Private Education in Washington, D.C. From there, CAPE monitors the lawmaking and rule-creating process of the federal government. So our schools are well-protected.
I am proud to say that everyone on our staff is a graduate of, or a parent of students in, a private religious school and knows firsthand the importance of that training. We’ve got graduates from Catholic K-12 schools in Indiana, Texas and Milwaukee, and a graduate of the state’s Lutheran schools, too. One of our staffers has children attending Catholic schools in the Madison area.
The richness of our staff’s experience shows in the commitment and knowledge they bring to the task of helping form God’s kingdom on earth through the work of our schools.
That’s what’s at stake as the school children fill buses and hallways for the new school year.
Despite our schools’ exciting growth in enrollment because of the pandemic, we know that we’ll never constitute more than about 10 percent of all K-12 enrollment in Wisconsin. Our state enrollment was already one of the highest in the nation. But we are an important and vigorous minority. We are leaven for the world. Our schools seek to turn out soldiers for the kingdom, and to be a sign of hope in a broken world.
Our job at WCRIS is to make sure that school choices exist for parents and children far into the future. There are many issues and problems that make that job more challenging than ever before. We’ll talk about them in the coming months in this column.
But with prayers from supporters like you, dear reader, I have every confidence that we and our schools will not shrink from that call.
Connect with us at www.wcris.org.