Dr. Howard Fuller and Superintendent Tony Evers co-authored an op-ed on Sunday expressing their concern about exempting voucher schools from taking the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam (WKCE). Although they didn't explain why removing WKCE was a mistake, they affirmed that all Milwaukee schools should be on a common report card. I agree. Yet I'm not so sold on it being the WKCE.
The focus of their piece was about keeping accountability in the voucher program, but they concluded that retaining the current income eligibility standards would protect the program's original mission of social justice. How income eligibility requirements affect the program's accountability is a bit confusing, but perhaps the good doctor had something else in mind.
I've talked to Howard Fuller about the program's income limits. He believes that social justice requires taxpayers anteing up for the education of low-income students. But Fuller's understanding of social justice is incomplete.
In Fuller's view, removing income limits from the voucher program would stop its original social justice mission because it would authorize "people of means" to participate. However, social justice isn't just about low-income families. Social justice is about equality and recognizing the dignity of every human being. Equality means parents of all backgrounds should have an equal footing to send their kids to the school of their choice.
What Fuller has in mind is not equality, but a type of equalizing. It's a way to lift up some without lifting up the rest. Fuller believes in centralized planning, a restrictive approach that unfortunately carves out the working poor. There is an ongoing debate about how to define a "people of means", and people like Fuller are okay with a shifting definition.
Currently, to enroll into the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, a family must make equal to or less than 175% of the federal poverty level. This means a family of four earning $40,000 a year cannot qualify. Does Dr. Fuller believe that such a family qualifies a "people of means?"
Now that Republicans have gained a firm control of Wisconsin's Legislature, it seems that Dr. Fuller is okay with raising the program's enrollment criterion from 175% to 300% of the federal poverty level. This expands the program to more working class families, but mandating exclusionary standards does not align with true social justice.
I do not question Dr. Fuller's heart, nor do I doubt his commitment to low-income families. But to date, I've found no evidence that removing income eligibility requirements would negatively impact low-income students. On the contrary, some studies suggest that broadening the program would increase competition and enhance student achievement.
If expanding the program doesn't negatively impact low-income students, then MPCP's original mission of social justice not only stays intact, but it would be redoubled. If school choice is really about education reform, then all children should have access despite income and geography.