The first Latina Legislator in Wisconsin, JoCasta Zamarripa, made news this week by reaffirming her opposition to the School Choice program - a program that provides parents a choice where to send their kids to school. The Journal-Sentinel reported that Zamarripa sees the School Choice program as "divisive" within her district. She also opposes lifting the program's enrollment cap. And what is most surprising is that Zamarripa was educated at St. Anthony's School in Milwaukee, the largest voucher school in the state.
Ninety-nine percent of the students at St. Anthony's School are Latino, most of which began their first year of school learning to speak English. Yet, St. Anthony's continues to show the great innovation of their curricula by achieving test scores that exceed the national average in both reading and mathematics - no small achievement on their part. This is particularly important because most of Zamarripa's district is composed of Latinos, some of which send their children to St. Anthony's School.
In 2003, 406 students attended St Anthony's elementary school. Last year, thanks to Wisconsin's School Choice program, St. Anthony's enrolled more than 1200 students, a 300% growth rate in 7 years. But if the voucher program were to be capped as Zamarripa wants, St. Anthony's ability accept to more students would be seriously diminished. Hispanic families on the south-side would undoubtedly feel the impact.
Recently, El Conquistador asked JoCasta Zamarripa to clarify what she meant by School Choice being divisive in the Latino community, and why she believes the voucher program isn't being held accountable. She responded in an email to our request, but did not answer our questions.
Before the November election, Jocasta Zamarripa told El Conquistador that she would favor lifting the caps if she saw more transparency, accreditation, standardized testing, and bilingual education. For those familiar with voucher schools, this means "never" on lifting the caps. Here are some pertinent facts.
First, according to Wisconsin law, all schools that participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) must be accredited within 3 years of entering MPCP. At least 11 private schools have already been kicked out of the program due to lack of compliance. So accreditation is not a problem.
Second, all private schools in the MPCP must publicly provide a budget and cash flow that details all expenditures, including employee wages, cash on hand, and the school's operating budget. In other words, they show where the money is going and how it is spent. Once more, all the schools in the program must provide evidence to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) of sound fiscal practices as prescribed by DPI. So transparency is not a problem.
Third, as of 2006, all schools that participated in MPCP were required to provide standardized testing for grades 4, 8, and 10 in math, reading, and science. As of this year, schools in MPCP must use the same standardized testing as public schools to ensure academic progress. So standardized testing is not a problem.
And fourth, mandating bilingual education may not be the smart thing to do. Ramon Cruz, Principal at St. Anthony's School, says that mandating bilingual education would essentially mess everything up at their school. According to Cruz, these mandates would force schools like St. Anthony's to replace something like 10% to 15% of their teaching faculty, find specialized bilingual teachers, purchase different text books, and in some cases, reformulate a substantially different curriculum. In St. Anthony's case, the bilingual mandate would entirely uproot their English Immersion curriculum.
Cruz, who has experience with bilingual education in public schools, says that bilingual education programs put off English fluency for years obstructing academic progress often seen quickly in English Immersion programs.
Zamarripa's idea to maintain a cap on the voucher program deprives parents - especially those in poor Latino neighborhoods - of the choice of which school to send their children. To some, this questions the notion of whether Zamarripa can claim to be an advocate for the Hispanic community while at the same time denying Latino children the chance to enroll in the best private and public schools in Milwaukee.
The graduation rate for students that participate in MPCP is 18% higher than students at MPS. And yet we have politicians telling us MPCP needs more standardized testing, accreditation, and accountability. Perhaps we should focus more on MPS, which has nearly bankrupted local taxpayers with massive unfunded health care liabilities.
Sadly, the average graduation rate in many of our largest cities is 50%. It suggests that centralized public education isn't working and hasn't worked in over 50 years. By basic structure, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program not centralized. It utilizes private education systems where parents, not bureaucrats, can decide which school to send their children. MPCP is also shaped by free market forces where parents - like consumers eying a good product - are free to choose.
In general, nobody has a greater interest in advancing the academic progress of their children than parents. Yet we allow bureaucrats to control our schools and ignore parents who know their children best. This is the major premise of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: parents are more capable of deciding what's best for their children. If we give them the power of mobility on the basis of free market competition, we will continue to see higher test scores and graduation rates.