Milwaukeeans testify to Senate committee on success of school choice

MILWAUKEE — Students who graduated from Milwaukee private high schools through the city’s pioneering school choice program testified about how the schools helped them succeed academically. One, Justice Shorter, who lost her sight while attending Messmer High School and has since gone on to earn a master’s degree in international relations, told Sen. Ron Johnson that it is crucial for the program to provide disabled children with aid equitable to what they would receive in a public school. 

“This program clearly has the ability to bring forth transformative change in the city of Milwaukee,” Shorter testified, telling how her family and Messmer covered added costs of her education “surrounded by caring and committed individuals” through fund-raising. Members of the public at the hearing applauded when she said the choice voucher should be expanded to better cover the added cost of educating children with disabilities. 

The testimony came at a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held at St. Marcus School in Milwaukee on Monday. Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the committee, heard testimony about Milwaukee’s pioneering school choice program, now 25 years old. His committee, which oversees the District of Columbia, will consider the reauthorization of the school choice program in Washington, D.C., this fall. Johnson said that lawmakers discussing the future of the program in Washington can learn from the experience of school choice in Milwaukee.  

The committee also has jurisdiction over the operations of other federal agencies. The committee has been trying to get the U.S. Department of Justice to provide at least some information about its years-long, indefinite investigation of unspecified allegations about the education of disabled children in choice schools. The Department of Justice refused to offer any testimony at the hearing despite being invited. Questions have been raised about whether the intent of the investigation is to chill the atmosphere for school choice. Others have questioned the basis for the allegations. 

“To say that private religious schools do not educate children with disabilities is flat out wrong and has been wrong for decades,” said Brother Bob Smith, long-time principal of Messmer High School. In old Messmer yearbooks, you see service dogs and Braille machines, showing how long private schools have striven to serve all children. “They did it because they cared about the education of the student,” he said. 

Also testifying at Monday’s hearing were Diana Lopez, a graduate of St. Anthony High School who attended through the choice program;  John Witte, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leading researcher of Milwaukee’s program; Richard Komer, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice; and Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus.  

Witte testified that, by his research, Milwaukee private schools were accepting significant percentages of children with disabilities. Tyson testified that St. Marcus takes in students with varied disabilities, including autism, and scrambles to scrape together money to make up the additional cost. “The challenge is, how do you meet all the needs, because we want to,” he said. 

Overall, the results of research into the program are now clear, Witte testified: School choice improves education. Graduation rates are consistently and significantly higher for students in Milwaukee’s choice schools, they tend to go on to better colleges, and they are more likely to stay in college, “a big, powerful finding,” he said. Children who attend a choice high school for four years have a 93% graduation rate, he said. 

Also important: Parents and students are more satisfied by choice schools, a finding that is consistently positive, he said, “and really wildly positive in some cases.” Research even found a “spillover effect” on Milwaukee Public Schools, Witte said. The effect is not large, but the finding is always positive, he said, and it is consistent with other research nationwide. 

Milwaukee’s choice program now educates over 25,000 children, and Johnson said that its popularity shows that parents must be finding that choice schools are providing a better education than other options. Smith testified that letting families make those choices underlies parents’ engagement in their children’s education, a policy that deserves public support. “We need people to be open to educating all kids in all families, and let the parents and guardians and families make these choices.”