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Evolution of Milwaukee's Choice Program Now Includes Catholic School Network

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This week, educators across the country will celebrate school choice week. Milwaukee is home to the oldest and largest school choice, or voucher program, in the nation. This year, 27,000 Milwaukee students are using state-funded vouchers to attend private schools; most are religious and many, Catholic.

The school landscape has changed dramatically in Milwaukee, starting after religious schools were folded into the choice program in 1998.

Today, of all Milwaukee kids, only 56 percent of those receiving a publicly-funded education are enrolled in MPS. That means almost half are making other choices. And the size of the Milwaukee voucher program now surpasses most public school districts in the state.

"I just can’t picture any scenario of what’s ahead in which it shrinks or disappears," says Alan Borsuk, longtime education reporter and senior fellow in public policy at Marquette Law School. "It’s not going to happen."

Borsuk has compiled numbers. He says local Catholic schools are large choice players. Today, of all students attending Milwaukee Archdiocesan schools, 80 percent are using vouchers.

"It has been a quarter century now that we’ve had a voucher program in Milwaukee, and one of the things that’s clear is there are a large number of parents who do want religious education for their kids," Borsuk says. " They want a higher, shall we call it, ‘behavior code,’ and a more moral-oriented code, whether it’s the Bible or other religions."

What is now evolving among some Catholic voucher schools in town is a new educational system. The Archdiocese calls it Seton Catholic Schools, and says the mission is to strengthen members.

Studies in past years have indicated that the choice program here has not boosted academic achievement in the city. Borsuk says self-prescribed goals for Seton's administrators include raising academic performance.

"This is an effort to, so to speak, ‘get with it’ as to what’s happening in the higher quality schools in Milwaukee and nationwide, outside of the Catholic system - the more entrepreneurial schools, the ones that are really setting higher goals," Borsuk explains. "It's an effort to energize the system and professionalize it."

Archdiocese leaders say the Seton centralized system will take the administrative burden off of individual school principals, so they can spend more time improving leadership and academic achievement.

Beginning in August, nine of Milwaukee’s Catholic schools will become part of Seton; the number will grow to 26 the following year. In the meantime, the system has launched a capital campaign to raise money.

Evolution of Milwaukee's Choice Program Now Includes Catholic School Network
WUWM's Rachel Morello talks with Seton Catholic Schools president Don Drees about the new network of Catholic elementary schools.

 On Tuesday Rachel Morello will report on the challenges the choice program is posing for some public school districts.

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