Hispanic Heritage Art Contest a Success

Our second annual Hispanic Heritage Month art contest was a success.  With participants from public, charter, and privates schools all around the state (no out-of-staters this year!), judges had a tough time picking the winners.  The theme for this year’s competition was “La Loteria.”  La loteria is a popular game in Mexico similar to bingo.

Ximena from New Berlin won the elementary category with her entry entitled “Even Frida Kahlo Played Loteria.”  At the high school level, Miriam from Eastbrook Academy won with an entry depicting Latin American flags and cultural items.



Noche de Galeria a Success!

At the end of October, friends of Hispanics for School Choice and members of our first cohort of 100 New Leaders for Education Reform training series spent an evening at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts to learn about education reform and enjoy art by local artists.  The exhibit at the time was a collection of elaborate altars commemorating Dia de Muertos.

“This was a fun way to partner with a great local organization,” Said Tammy Olivas, Director of Outreach for Hispanics for School Choice.  “The artwork by the community artists and the students helped make it a colorful and festive evening to talk about educational options and have a good  time.”

Attendees could also vote for the winners of the annual Hispanic Heritage month art contest.  This year’s winning entries were by students from New Berlin and Eastbrook Academy in Milwaukee.


Betsy DeVos deserves the support of education reformers

This article, by our executive director Jason Crye, originally appeared at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog, “Flypaper.”

No one could pin down what Donald Trump thought about education during this year’s campaign. That’s all changed with the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. In DeVos, Trump has selected a wily and battle-tested reformer, someone with clear policy goals who knows how to win a fight and make reform happen. She deserves our support.

Yet while some are celebrating, a gaggle of naysayers is spoiling the party.

The anti-school choice crowd, of course, opposes DeVos. In Florida, some teachers are already planning protests to decry DeVos’s nomination. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have condemned the choice, too.

We might expect criticism from teacher’s unions and other anti-school choice groups, but not from fellow education reformers. And yet some of them have been quick to join the chorus.

Some reject DeVos merely because she is willing to join the Trump cabinet. According to them, anyone who supports Trump is a misogynist and bigot.

That’s simplistic and unfair.

It’s also unproductive: who knows what good DeVos might do from a cabinet position?

Michelle Rhee said it best in a statement after her much-publicized meeting with Trump: “Our job as Americans is to want [Mr. Trump] to succeed. Wishing for his failure would be wanting the failure of our millions of American children, who desperately need a better education.”

A slightly less radical criticism of DeVos centers on school regulation. In an op-ed the New York Times rushed to print, Douglas N. Harris chastised her for designing Detroit’s charter school system to run like the “wild west.” Harris claims that choice can work only within a regulatory framework that somehow guarantees quality schools. As a free market loving Republican, DeVos doesn’t approach the issue that way. But that doesn’t make her an outlaw in a black hat.

For those of us who believe in giving parents power, free markets are a good thing. Some parents may make mistakes in choosing schools—but that’s part of being free, as Americans have always known. Bringing in a flock of pedantic regulators can’t eliminate risk; it just creates other problems while eroding people’s liberty. Most parents won’t buy the argument that “experts” are better at choosing a school for their child than they are.

Two years ago, I was paired with a high school senior named Diana in a mentoring program. At the time, the average ACT score at her school was about 16, but she was an exception. She was accepted to an Ivy League school with a full scholarship. During one of our meetings, I asked Diana why she and her parents chose her high school and not one that was more highly regarded. Her reply was that they prized the religious identity of the school and the fact that the school helped her stay connected to her Mexican heritage. Those are factors that no expert can quantify. Now she’s earning a degree in New Haven. Would the regulators have predicted that?

Diana’s story shows that one size does not fit all.

Education reformers who are reflexively critical of DeVos are framing a narrow set of policies—the ones they prefer—as the very definition of “school choice,” “justice,” “morality,” or “accountability.” Within this narrow set of dogmas, it’s easy to caricature those who disagree with you as awful boogeymen, rather than accepting that others might legitimately see things differently.

Whether parents should be able to be able to choose schools that others consider bad is a reasonable question—and worthy of debate. But let’s not allow that to blind us from the fact that a school choice advocate has been nominated to a cabinet position. That’s “huge” for our movement. We need to support Betsy DeVos. Give her a chance! Let’s not allow Utopia to get in the way of real change.

Uniting Latinos behind education reform

In “Lost opportunity for charter schools,” Robert Pondiscio says education reformers should blame themselves for the failure of a ballot initiative this month to establish more charter schools in Massachusetts. The vote on “Question 2” wasn’t even close: 62 percent of voters were against it. That’s embarrassing. Only one other ballot question was answered more decisively: 77 percent of voters were against “extreme farm animal confinement.” No more eggs from cramped chickens.

But that’s another story.

Pondiscio explains that education reformers have been “too enamored of our own civil-rights-issue-of-our-time rhetoric to worry much about building a constituency among the middle class.” In other words, we’re out of touch.

I think Pondiscio is right: There are groups out there who aren’t hearing us. One such group, as he says, is middle class voters.

Another is Latinos.

According to the Pew Research Center, 729,000 Latinos live in Massachusetts, which is about 11 percent of the state’s population. Of those, 372,000 were eligible to vote in this month’s election: 8 percent of the electorate. This group is growing by the year.

Now, what would have happened if even half of Latino voters had supported Question 2? Charter schools would be on track to win in Massachusetts. A similar model would work in many other states. This month’s bad experience in New England shows why we need Latinos on our side.

Statistics show that many Latinos are wide open to school reform—more open than other Americans. In an EdChoice survey last year, 62 percent of Latinos said they support charter schools, compared to 53 percent of all Americans. The same survey revealed that Latinos name education a top priority more often than others. Education was second only to “economy and jobs” on their list.

That suggests a new approach: To attract Latino support for school reform, we need to show how education and employment fit together.

I was born in Illinois and live and work in Milwaukee. A while back, I met Agripino, a Mexican immigrant who moved to the Midwest and found work at a slaughterhouse. His job is to carve up pigs with a saw. It’s hard work, but Agripino is always smiling. Don’t lecture him about the harshness of his life: He is proud of the home he bought with his own wages. He is sure his children will graduate from high school. One daughter wants to continue her education and become a nurse.

How can education reformers reach Agripino? We need to understand his culture. In the country he comes from, education is prized, but charter schools and school choice programs don’t exist. So when Agripino hears about something other than a traditional public school, he thinks: expensive tuition. Fancy private schools are the only non-public option he knows.

We know we can offer him something different. But we have to take time to explain that to him. There is a lot of background about our educational system that needs to be introduced to someone like Agripino. This information may seem basic to an English-speaking American who is a product of American schools. But not to Agripino. Openness and empathy are key.

If we start by explaining the essentials, we can make important connections for Agripino between school reform and work. That means a lot to a striving Latino family. We can show Agripino how education reform will help get his daughter into nursing school. We can show how school reforms help his kids learn more effectively right now.

Agripino knows hard work pays off because that is the story of his own life. But he might not understand how a broken public school system could hold even good kids back. A father like Agripino needs to see that a charter school with a STEM program will increase his children’s chances, even if he lives in a decent school district. We need to show real advantages of reform: When you work in a slaughterhouse, you’re no-nonsense.

We have to remember the fundamentals. Latino immigrants come here to work. They want to move up. They believe in education, but they don’t know how the system works. Our job is to connect the dots between our efforts as reformers and Latino families’ dreams. That means we need to come out from behind the laptop and get into the neighborhoods. We need to explain school reform in an unpretentious way that is rooted in real life. That’s how to reach Agripino.

If we make the effort, we can be confident that we will be heard. After all, our movement champions success and upward mobility. Immigrants of all kinds understand that. Striving, rather than a narrative of oppression, is the American way. Self-improvement is the dream for which people like Agripino come here.

In the reform community, we must have a positive, practical vision. We can unite Latinos behind school reform. But we need to explain. And when we do, we’ll discover that—like the rest of us—Latinos want the best for their kids. A mother’s love and a father’s pride are powerful motors for change. And that is what will win us the next ballot initiative.

This article originally appeared at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  

Wisconsin gets back in the school-choice groove

Wisconsin is the birthplace of the school-choice movement. In the pantheon of education reform shine names like Wisconsin State Representative Polly Williams, Dr. Howard Fuller, and Governor Tommy Thompson. These pioneers gained bipartisan support by providing a targeted, prudent solution for Wisconsin parents: the educational voucher. This tool has since helped tens of thousands of families take control of education and achieve their dreams. And in Wisconsin, it combines with two other parental choice programs to serve thirty-four thousand students.

Recently, however, some growing pains in the voucher program have knocked some of the shine off of the other two. The hippest policy wonks are enamored with a new set of ideas that are supposed to help parents get the best for their kids. It’s been a while since Wisconsin was on the cutting edge.

During a talk in Milwaukee last year on his book New and Better Schools, Michael McShane was put on the spot by an audience member who asked whether Wisconsin was still a leader in education reform. McShane found a graceful way to say “no.” He pointed to the growth of Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, tax credit scholarships in places like Florida, and the success in other states of Educational Savings Accounts.

McShane’s points are well taken. But the successes of Wisconsin’s past shouldn’t be treated as dusty artifacts in the education reform museum. I believe Wisconsin still has the energy to lead. The Badger state is getting back in the groove. And that’s not just because I live in Milwaukee and see the world through cheddar-colored lenses.

Let’s look at the facts. In addition to the thirty-four thousand students who participate in Wisconsin’s choice programs, over fifty thousand participate in the state’s open enrollment program, which allows parents to send their children to a public school in a district other than the one in which they reside. Those numbers are huge. A culture of choosing one’s school has been well established in Wisconsin through the experiences of thousands of families.

A great example of this ‘choice culture’ is the success of the Wisconsin Special Needs Scholarship Program, which—in only its first year—was used by 206 students to attend the private school of their choice. This, despite a narrow set of eligibility criteria designed to be a high hurdle. Unsurprisingly, parents will fight for their kids.

Among Catholic schools, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has initiated a network of elementary schools called Seton Catholic Schools that will eventually serve over ten thousand students in nearly thirty schools. If successful, Seton may become the blueprint for other Catholic dioceses looking for ways to improve struggling schools. People like Rick Hess are taking note of Milwaukee’s approach, which suggests that Seton is on the right track.

And what about results? Last month, data released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showed that students participating in Wisconsin’s choice programs outperformedtheir counterparts on the ACT Exam. All choice programs in this state have increased enrollment, with two programs seeing double-digit growth. It’s undeniable: Families like what they’re getting.

Right now, the maximum voucher for K–8 schools in all programs is about $7,200—approximately half the funding that Wisconsin’s traditional public schools receive, but more than similar choice programs in other states. In Indiana, for example, the average scholarship value in the Choice Scholarship Program is about $4,000. That money makes a difference.

Wisconsin school leaders are resourceful. They find clever ways to help families and, in turn, spur the growth of the state’s choice programs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wisconsin’s statewide choice enrollment double by 2022—so great are the opportunities for growth.

If I have yet to convince you that Wisconsin is getting back in position as a reform leader, don’t worry—even pioneers and mavericks know it’s OK to join the popular clique sometimes. Recently, a conversation has started in Wisconsin about whether to incorporate Education Savings Accounts into the state’s education marketplace. That would be cool. Like the Fonz. He was from Milwaukee, remember?

This article originally appeared at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.