Oshkosh Corporation announced in a press release last month that its defense division plans to reduce its workforce in Oshkosh by about 700 hourly positions in mid-June and 200 salaried positions through July.St. Anthony School, Milwaukee, students receive vision screenings courtesy Prevent Blindness Wisconsin volunteers and employees from Herslof Optical on Thursday, Feb. 7. Nearly all of the more than 1,100 St. Anthony students in grades K-4 through high school are enrolled through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. (Catholic Herald file photo by Ricardo Torres)

The company’s downsizing to prepare for a 30 percent decline in daily production volumes this summer will not only affect people in the Fond du Lac community – some members of Holy Family Parish – but also the education of their children if they can’t afford to send them to a private school of their choice like St. Mary’s Springs Academy (SMSA), according to Fr. Robert Stiefvater, member of the priest team at Holy Family.

“I really feel that for these people there is no other alternative except public education,” he said. “There is only this one platform, and anything we can do to offer people that can’t access another form and make an informed choice, we need to do that as a church.”

That’s why Fr. Stiefvater said the Holy Family community joins the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) – the public policy voice of Wisconsin’s bishops – in supporting the expansion of choice programs and the creation of a special needs scholarship program as outlined in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget.

The governor’s budget proposal would expand the program to Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Waukesha, Beloit, Kenosha, Madison, Superior and West Allis-West Milwaukee, and create a Special Needs Scholarship Program, giving parents the opportunity, through a state-funded scholarship, to send their children with special needs to the public or private school of their choice.

41 Catholic schools already participating

Thirty-two Catholic elementary schools and nine secondary schools are participating in the choice program, which has existed in Milwaukee since 1990-91, and Racine Unified School District, since 2011-12 academic years. The program allows students who reside in those districts to attend any participating private school if certain eligibility requirements are met; 9,565 students are enrolled through the program in Catholic schools, with 9,384 through Milwaukee’s and 181 through Racine’s, according to Brenda White, associate superintendent of the schools office for the archdiocese.

“I really think everybody should have alternatives,” Fr. Stiefvater said. “We do best for our chidren when we do have alternatives and people lower than a certain income or with large families just cannot afford private education in any form and they are reliant on public education, whether or not that education is good for their children or not, or appropriate for their children or not.”

Private education is still out of reach for families, even with generous scholarship opportunities available to them, according to Fr. Stiefvater. The average financial aid award given to families at SMSA who qualified for assistance for the 2012-2013 school year was 43 percent of the family’s tuition cost; the highest was 70 percent, according to the SMSA website, www.smsacademy.org.

“We have had Hispanic families that have gotten their children up to eighth-grade and they say, ‘We can’t afford it. We can afford one child maybe if he or she is a good student in the Catholic high school, or private high school, but we can’t afford two in high school and one in grade school, or two in grade school and two in high school – we can’t pay for that,’ and so we’ve got to help our families somehow in the State of Wisconsin,” he said.

Not a rejection of public schools

Fr. Stiefvater wrote in the parish bulletin that Holy Family doesn’t see its support of school choice “as a rejection of the excellent Fond du Lac public school system,” but as a partnership in educating children.

“I don’t think that Catholic education should be an education for the elite,” he said. “We’re at the point where we can’t offer an education for the populations we want to be serving without state help, and the state already gives help to universities, for both minority students and students with limited income or from families with limited income. They support Catholic hospitals, they support Catholic or private universities or Catholic or private hospitals for people of limited income and minorities; why can’t they do it with high schools and grade schools?”

According to Kim Wadas, WCC associate director of Education and Health Care, the nine districts in Gov. Walker’s budget meet the requirements to be eligible for the program: the district must have at least 4,000 students enrolled, at least two schools with school report cards indicating they are currently receiving grades of failed to meet expectations or underperforming, and demonstrate that 20 students are interested in applying for the parental choice program.

She said families currently receive $6,442, an amount established by state statute; that number would remain the same for the 2013-14 academic year, increasing in the 2014-15 academic year to $7,050 for students in kindergarten through eighth-grade and $7,856 for students in high school.

“The reason why the legislature right now is establishing the difference, is it’s actually just generally more costly to send a student to high school than it is elementary school and that’s true across the board – public, private schools,” she said, explaining that high school courses are more demanding and require more resources and instructors.

New enrollment would be capped at 500

The Milwaukee program cap of no more than 22,500 participating, full-time equivalent (FTE) students, was lifted in 2011, and Racine Unified School District’s cap of 500 in the 2012-2013 school year is lifted for the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s Milwaukee and Racine Parental Choice Programs Informational Paper 26, published in January.

Wadas said that the expanded program enrollment would be capped at 500 students statewide for the 2013-2014 academic year, followed by 1,000 students the following year, and lifted the next, similar to what happened with the Racine program.

Private schools’ participation in the program is voluntary, she said.

“No private school has to participate in the program, and for our Catholic schools, we always recommend that the school should do an assessment to make sure they can meet the needs of any students, because as you know with Choice, (participating schools will) have to accept every student who applies.” Wadas said, explaining that students can only be denied if all seats are filled in the random selection process.

Wadas said some schools might be better-suited to participate than others, but all seem to be able to make adjustments by acquiring more English as a Second Language teachers or people who can mentor.

“If you’re dedicated to serving the poor and there’s that preferential option for the poor in our teaching, then your schools should also be making kind of that move to see if that’s something they can do better,” she said.

St. Agnes to join program

St. Agnes School in Butler recently decided to participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program for the 2013-2014 school year – a decision that came after many meetings were held since December with parish and school leadership, the archdiocesan schools office and parents at the school.

Kay Bobb, principal at the school serving 125 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, said it has been a huge learning process, but worth the time and paperwork because of the many families that the program will help. Thirteen of the 17 families receiving aid from the school’s Tuition Angels, money donated by school families to help others in need, have already been accepted into the program for next year.

“We’re excited here at St. Agnes and we think that this will be a positive thing for our school and our parish and for the community that we serve in this area,” Bobb said, explaining that $15,000 in St. Agnes Tuition Angels money was used this year alone.
“That’s quite a bit of money that opens up to the other families that perhaps don’t live in Milwaukee and would not be eligible for choice. They could now apply to Tuition Angels,” she added.

Academy president hopes for same opportunities

Kevin J. Shaw, president of St. Mary’s Springs Academy in Fond du Lac, a pre-kingergarten through 12th-grade school with 702 students, is hoping Walker’s budget proposal passes so families in the Fond du Lac community have the same opportunities available through the Milwaukee and Racine programs.

“Families who might not otherwise be able to afford private education may now have the freedom to choose our school or any accredited alternative school to fit the specific needs of families,” Shaw wrote in a guest commentary published in the April 14 issue of the Fond du Lac Reporter. “Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal provides a new opportunity for many families who could not afford non-public schools previously, partially because they are already supporting public schools through their taxes.”

He wrote that he strongly supports the legislation before the legislature that would allow parents to choose public or private education for their children through state funding, and that his support is not a judgment upon any public school district or type of education, but support for “parental involvement in making the best decisions for their children regardless of economic status.”

“Choice will certainly be beneficial for all private schools, but the primary advantage is for families to have the opportunity to send their children to the school that best fits their needs,” Shaw wrote in an email to your Catholic Herald.

The Joint Finance Committee is holding executive sessions, going through the budget piece by piece to see if amendments are necessary. Once the committee decides what to keep or alter, the budget goes to one of the two houses for further amendments and a vote, according to Wadas.

“Then to the other house and if the version passed in both houses isn’t the same, they have to have a conference committee to decide on a uniform version of the bill, and then when there’s a uniform version of the bill (approved by both houses), then that’s finally forwarded to the governor for his signature,” she said, noting that the current budget expires at the end of the day on June 30.

Hispanics seek more educational opportunities

Jason S. Crye, executive director of Hispanics For School Choice, an organization that represents and informs the Hispanic Communities of Wisconsin on school choice and advocates for the removal of restrictions to the parental right to choose, said many of the communities in which they work – Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Kenosha – have sizable contingents of Hispanics who desperately want more opportunities for their children as those in Milwaukee and Racine have experienced.

“In that case, just empowering families to be able to choose the type of school that because of their zip code or because of their income wasn’t available to them is a tremendous boon,” he said, noting that the geographic expansion and monetary increase per pupil will help not only the families, but the schools like St. Anthony School, Milwaukee, and Notre Dame Middle School on the city’s south side, continue their mission.

During a Hispanics For School Choice event in Fond du Lac a few weeks ago, about 40 families attended and were in favor of the program expansion after learning about it, Crye said.

“A lot of times it becomes public versus private and there are all kinds of numbers that are thrown about, and numbers are important and test scores and everything, but for me, I think what it comes down to is just parents having the ability to put their values into motion and choose a school accordingly,” he said.

Potential expansion welcomed by archdiocese

Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, said several schools in the cities included in the potential choice program expansion are interested, but couldn’t say which schools in which cities.

“I do know that several are looking to this potential choice expansion as a very positive move that would allow both current families and prospective families to benefit from the option of participating in the choice program,” she said.

Cepelka said that the schools office and School Choice Wisconsin as well as other experts were on hand to assist schools when the program expanded to Racine, and are in the process of preparing to assist schools in the proposed areas of expansion if it occurs.

“Some of that assistance is provided on site. Some of it is provided through public presentations, which are occuring in some areas right now,” she said, noting that there have been discussions and exploratory meetings – no commitments – in Kenosha, Waukesha and Fond du Lac. “So, there are different ways in which that preparation and assistance is taking place.”

Cepelka said the schools will self-determine whether they’re interested in participating in the program, with assistance from the schools office and other groups like School Choice Wisconsin.

“We are supportive of the legislation and we are in line with the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in that support,” she said.