Friday, December 9th, 2016

School choice plan doesn’t go far enough

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School choice plan doesn’t go far enough

Parents, students deserve more options statewide

Waukesha Freeman 7/11/13 Page A6 Opinion

I won’t pretend that I’m happy with the final compromise in the state budget regarding the expansion of private school choice, commonly referred to as vouchers.

When other states are moving forward boldly in expanding private school choice opportunities, the state where school choice began is now falling behind.

Five hundred students statewide the first year is a drop in the bucket. Gov. Scott Walker’s plan was not much better, but at least it targeted districts with failing schools and offered more students and parents private school choice.

However, the compromise does show the hypocrisy of school choice critics. State Sen. Mike Ellis had two main complaints about the governor’s plan. He said he wanted “local control” with school districts deciding whether to participate in school choice. He also said it would be unfair in school districts to have a lottery to determine who could go to private schools.

Guess what? We have a lottery, and it’s statewide. So much for local control.

Now that it is statewide, school choice opponents are nervous that the enrollment caps will be removed by a future session of the Legislature. We can only hope.

Choice opponents have taken to focusing on special needs students, claiming that some private choice schools are inadequate to educating those students. They even accuse private schools of “cherry picking” which students they will educate.

Of course, these same school choice opponents successfully fought a proposed budget provision that would have funded statefunded scholarships, vouchers, for special needs students that would have allowed students and parents to find schools that will best serve their needs. The additional funding for those students would have helped private schools to better educate special needs students, too.

Critics complain that private schools are not under the same obligations as public schools to accommodate special needs kids. Public schools are required to put together an educational plan that is specifically tailored to the student.

Private school parents can also request such a plan to be created by the local public school district, but the private school is not obligated to follow through.

But this is why choice is so important, and why it’s so important that choice is expanded to allow more competition for students.

Not every student is the same. In trying to make schools one-size-fits-all educational factories, some students are not having their educational needs met.

That’s why public school districts are now embracing charter schools. Even in the Waukesha School District, demand for the STEM program is very high.

However, I’ve spoken to some parents who have kids in the STEM program and they learned that the program wasn’t a good match for their kids. It’s not that STEM is a bad program, it just didn’t work for them.

Should we expect STEM to completely change to accommodate those few students? Or should they take advantage of other school options, both within and outside of the district?

The Lovely Doreen and I discovered that my son is not a good candidate for a traditional brick-and-mortar education in a private school. A traditional public school was not an option, but we discovered he learns reasonably well in an online school, right here in the Waukesha School District. It’s not for everybody, and it certainly wouldn’t work for his sister, but it works for him.

Different students learn differently and need different educational options.

The other irony in the controversy over special needs students is that when a public school district discovers that it can’t accommodate a student’s educational requirements, it’s forced to find an alternative. That includes paying for the child to attend a private school.

The Legislature had a chance this year to truly expand the educational opportunities for children. We need to have a system in place that allows for parents to choose the best schools for their kids. The education of a child should not be based upon the content of a parent’s wallet, but on the child’s needs.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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