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This Just In ...

Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.

School choice today

School choice today
By Guest blogger Jim Bender
President, School Choice Wisconsin
Re-printed courtesy of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest

Few things in Wisconsin have been as volatile as the changes to the school choice programs in Wisconsin in the legislative time that followed the passage of ACT 10. Where the major changes to the program largely went unnoticed in 2011, the 2013 state budget process had a spotlight on every aspect of the program.

In the last two state budgets there have been a number of changes to both the reach and scope of the programs.  In 2011, the enrollment cap was removed from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the income level was increased from 185% of federal poverty to 300%, and a "once in, always in" provision was added to allow parents whose income increased over time the ability to remain in the programs.

Additionally, the geographic limitations on where schools could be located were removed making it possible for suburban Milwaukee schools to service their students who resided inside Milwaukee.  A new program was also created in Racine that was capped at 250 students the first year, 500 the second year, and now has no limits on enrollment. We anticipate more than 1,000 students will be enrolled in the Racine program in 2013-14.

In the latest state budget, the voucher amount increased from $6,442 for the 2013-14 school year to a bifurcated level of $7,210 for grades K-8 and $7,856 for grades 9-12 starting in the 2014-15 school year.  A third school choice program, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) was created that now covers the rest of the state.

The WPCP has enrollment caps of 500 in 2013-14 and 1,000 in 2014-15.  Income is limited to 185% of federal poverty and will cap the number of students from any one public school district to 1%.  In August of 2013, more than 2,400 students applied for 500 available slots at schools around the state.

School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, Hispanics for School Choice, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and the American Federation for Children all combined efforts to educate parents, schools, policymakers and the public at large about the benefits of school choice.

Make no mistake, the grass roots efforts of many helped make these changes a reality. When Governor Walker and supportive legislators make bold policy decisions, advocacy groups like School Choice Wisconsin need to be effective in shaping public opinion and activating supporters so they, in turn, can be supportive of their elected officials.

Governor Walker initially proposed expanding the program to nine public school districts based on a failing schools model utilizing the new statewide report card. What ensued over the next few months was a coordinated, deliberate campaign from all corners of the public school establishment. Every hysterical criticism and false accusation they could concoct was repeated over and over and over.

Green Bay was ground zero for the debate.  In the 2011 budget, Green Bay was included as an area of school choice expansion. In the end, the legislature removed Green Bay from the mix and only Racine saw school choice expansion.

School Choice Wisconsin immediately started to coordinate local supporters of school choice expansion to Green Bay.  We had parents, business owners, community leaders and schools all supporting the expansion. Multiple venues for rallies, forums, and an untold numbers of chicken dinners resulted in a groundswell of support.

Even though Mother Nature decided to drop a blizzard on Green Bay the night of the first public forum, more than 300 people turned out to show their support.  At event after event, local supporters made their voices heard.  Local legislators saw the momentum building.

With our experience from Green Bay and with the support of other local groups, we highlighted support in Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan and other communities around the state.

Through an unpredictable series of events in the final stretch of budget negotiations, the work in Green Bay and other communities resulted in a pivot from a limited failing schools model of expansion to a full statewide program encompassing all private and religious schools in the state.  While disappointed with the caps on the statewide program, we know over time legislators will react to parental demand for the program.

There is still a great deal of work to do.  The opponents of school choice are well funded, albeit with tax dollars, and very motivated. While opponents will seek to protect bureaucracies and public employees at the expense of children, we will continue our work on behalf of children, parents, and great schools.

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