By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — More Wisconsin families stuck in failing or dysfunctional school systems would have an easier escape route in a bill that expands school choice and open-enrollment opportunities statewide.
The measure, passed this week by the Republican-controlled Assembly, opens up the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty rate.
Under current law, families making more than 220 percent of the poverty line are ineligible for state assistance to enroll in private schools.
The bill also expands full-time open enrollment to an “unlimited number” of nonresident school districts — critical, reform proponents say, for families who felt trapped over the past year in failing schools that shut down in-person learning.
“As we all know, this past year parents have been extremely frustrated and honestly, I think, in many ways we have betrayed the public trust in getting our kids educated,” Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) said Tuesday before debate on the bill.
The legislation now goes on to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. Gov. Tony Evers, tied to the hip of the state’s teachers unions, will surely kill the bill as soon as it hits his desk. Despite urging from the health community (including top federal health officials), Gov. “Follow the Science” Evers did nothing to get kids back in the classrooms.
And the pain has been pronounced.
Failure rates have exploded. Nearly all of the 60 school districts responding to a USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin survey reported that more high school students failed a class last fall than in recent years, and most blamed the same factor: online learning. In Milwaukee Public Schools, where students are just returning to school a few weeks before the end of the school year, around one in three students failed the fall semester. One elementary school in Milwaukee couldn’t make contact with 25 percent of its students.
The Madison Metropolitan School District, which bowed to its teachers union and kept kids out of the classroom for more than a year, has effectively thrown in the towel. As the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported, the district so loosened its grading standards that its student failure rates plummeted in the 2020 fall semester. The district’s middle schools issued 3,608 failing grades in the fall semester of 2019, and less than 60 in the same semester in 2020.
District spokesperson Liz Merfeld told the newspaper the district removed F’s from its middle school reporting scale, “knowing that many students were experiencing significant barriers as we moved to virtual learning.” But the school system refused to open to in-person learning long after health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci urged schools to bring students back to class.