Hispanics for School Choice (HFSC), a non-profit organization founded in Milwaukee County, is hosting a coming out event at the United Community Center (UCC) on January 24th. It marks the first time in Wisconsin history that leaders in the Hispanic community have organized to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Last week, Executive Board members of Hispanics for School Choice created somewhat of a buzz as they descended upon the State Capitol to circulate their legislative agenda. Associates from the American Federation of Children and School Choice Wisconsin accompanied HFSC in separate meetings with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Education Committee Chair Steve Kestell, and Secretary of the Department of Administration Mike Huebsch to discuss a timetable of moving the School Choice program forward.
HFSC Board Members were also given exclusive entry to a closed caucus in the Grand Army of the Republic Hearing Room before Assembly Republicans - an access rarely granted to non-profit organizations of any sort for any reason. Before the 60-member caucus, Board Members of HFSC were introduced communicating the idea that HFSC aimed to be more of a resource to legislators than a needy lobbyist.
The missive handed out by HFSC promotes the categorical expansion of parental choice programs throughout the state of Wisconsin, including the legislative removal of enrollment caps and the equalization of income qualifiers. HFSC believes that the parental right to choose the best education for their children should not be limited to geography, race, or income stratification. Just as parents are free to choose safe day-cares for their children, they should have a similar right to provide direction as their children grow older.
A recent study illustrated that choice school students in Milwaukee - in comparison to MPS students - have an 18% higher graduation rate and are more likely to enroll into college. Florida's reforms are equally impressive.
In 1999, Florida Governor Jeb Bush enacted a series of education turnaround programs that flipped Florida from among the worst in K-12 education to one of the best. From 1998 to 2009, the average reading score for Hispanic students across the country - according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test - increased by 6 points. By 2009, Hispanic students in Florida increased their NAEP reading score by 25 points, which was twice the gain made by Hispanics on a national level.
Florida's reforms demonstrate that "demography does not equal destiny." Today, Florida's 4th grade Hispanic students - when compared to NAEP scores for all students across the country - meet or exceed the average score of 31 states. This puts Florida's Hispanics two grade levels higher than Hispanics across the nation.
From 2000 to 2007, Milwaukee's Hispanic population grew by 41%. This growth spurt led to an increased participation in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) - a program that provides school vouchers to needy families. The student makeup of St. Anthony's School in Milwaukee, for example, is 99% Hispanic and 99% voucher participants. In a matter of 7 years, St. Anthony's has multiplied their student body by three-fold increasing enrollments from 400 to 1,400 a year. Thanks to MPCP, St. Anthony's School is now the largest voucher school in the state.
The need for choice schools in the Hispanic community is great. According to the Lexington Institute, overcrowding often falls most heavily in Latino neighborhoods. Hispanic parents ought to have more options available whether it's in the form of a private, charter, or even virtual school. Charter schools in Chicago, for instance, have made major academic inroads with Latino students, who in some cases outperformed Latinos in Chicago's public schools 83.8% of the time. We've also seen Florida's bottom up approach to K-12 education where 8th graders have nearly doubled the national average in reading scores. What we've learned from Florida and Chicago is that parental choice is an excellent way to increase school performance.
Hispanics for School Choice surfaced in Milwaukee to provide Hispanic communities in Wisconsin the information they need to make informed choices about education. It involves more than just lit-drops. HFSC also opposes means-testing the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. They believe that government should not discriminate against families making more than 175% of the federal poverty level, thereby denying them access to school vouchers.
Executive Board members of HFSC include various familiar faces in the Hispanic community such as Victor Huyke (owner of El Conquistador Newspaper), Daisy Cubias (Staff Assistant to Mayor Tom Barrett), Ivan Gamboa (VP of Tri-City Bank), and Zeus Rodriguez (local business owner and active member of Catholic Association of Latino Leaders).
The Advisory Board members are no strangers to Wisconsin politics either. They include leaders such as James Klauser (former Secretary of Administration for Governor Tommy Thompson), Jose Delgado (founder of the American Transmission Company), Jose Vasquez (CEO of three non-profits in Milwaukee), Anselmo Villarreal (President and CEO of La Casa de Esparanza), and Susan Mitchell (President of School Choice Wisconsin).
Hispanics for School Choice have a distinct vision of keeping parents informed that specifically starts with Wisconsin Districts 7, 8, and 9. HFSC will appoint District Leaders for each of the maps on their website while also integrating Ward Leaders that subdivide each District.
President of Hispanics for School Choice Zeus Rodriguez said, "The schematic strategy is based upon the geography of assembly districts and the voting wards within them tactically recruiting hundreds of members called Ward Leadership Teams." Rodriguez believes this will create the machinery needed to disseminate information swiftly to tens of thousands of people. It will involve more than mailings, but the mobilization of school teachers, principals, and administrators that closely network with parents in the community.
The agenda of Hispanics for School Choice may appear ambitious, but make no mistake about it; it requires careful planning. They understand that pressing legislators involves more than staged protests at their offices, but an aggressive drive to energize entire voting blocs if necessary. There is more to it than just staging a protest. Rodriguez said, "Our effort is not only possible, but will be a true grassroots movement, not just a few people knocking on doors at election time."
Through school vouchers, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has saved taxpayers $30 million each year - approximately $7,000 per pupil. Right out the gate, MPCP saves the taxpayer money. Students in Milwaukee choice schools are also graduating at higher rates than MPS students - 18% higher. The program also decentralizes schools bringing education closer to parents. When considering these points and the recent changes in state government, expanding School Choice into areas like Milwaukee County, Racine County, and even Green Bay has considerable momentum.
The notion of increasing parental control and involvement in the education of their children is popular - especially in the Hispanic community. Lobbyists like the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) will have a difficult time convincing voters to oppose it. As a result, Wisconsin's School Choice program will expand in one way or another, and our children will be the direct beneficiaries of reform.