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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Betsy DeVos Launches 'Education Freedom' Tour At Milwaukee Voucher School

Emily Files
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos greets 8th graders at St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee Monday.

One of President Trump’s most controversial Cabinet members visited Milwaukee Monday to celebrate and call for the expansion of school choice. It was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ first stop on her back-to-school tour promoting "education freedom."

DeVos spent a few hours at St. Marcus Lutheran School, a private voucher school in the Brewer's Hill neighborhood. She toured classrooms, talked to students, and held a roundtable discussion that included like-minded state lawmakers.

Milwaukee has the oldest voucher program in the country. It started as an avenue for low-income children to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. The vouchers have expanded since then to include about 40,000 students across Wisconsin at a cost of about $300 million.

Credit Emily Files
Betsy DeVos speaks at a round table with other school choice supporters, including Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and St. Marcus principal Henry Tyson.

“I’ve come to Milwaukee, the birthplace of education freedom, to stand on the shoulders of giants and say now is the time to ignite a new birth of freedom for all of America’s students,” DeVos said. 

St. Marcus is one of the most high-performing choice schools in Milwaukee. Its primarily low-income, African American kindergarten through eighth-grade students outperform their peers at many other private and public schools.

DeVos is using the back-to-school tour as a platform to promote her Education Freedom Scholarships proposal. It would provide $5 billion in tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to school choice scholarships. Those scholarships could pay for private school tuition, but DeVos said the details and whether to participate would be up to each state.

Credit Emily Files
The majority of St. Marcus' K-8 students use taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers as part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

“Perhaps it’s increased dual enrollment opportunities or career and technical education opportunities or apprenticeships or internships,” she said. “We’ve really encouraged people to think very broadly about what freedom in education can and should look like.”

The Education Freedom Scholarship proposal faces a difficult battle in the politically divided Congress.  

And DeVos’s overall goals face fierce opposition from public school supporters. Dozens of Milwaukee public education advocates gathered across the street from St. Marcus to protest DeVos and school privatization. They chanted “Go home, Betsy!”

MPS parent and union leader Ingrid Walker-Henry said vouchers have devastated Milwaukee Public Schools.

Credit Emily Files
Milwaukee public school supporters expressed their opposition to Betsy DeVos' priorities on Monday during the education secretary's visit to St. Marcus.

“Schools in MPS went from offering language classes, home economics and shop classes to barely being able to provide basic classes,” Walker-Henry said. “It’s not right.”

When asked why she was visiting public schools in other cities but not Milwaukee, DeVos told reporters there simply wasn’t enough time.

“Our goal was to cover a lot of territory and to find places that are doing things a bit differently,” DeVos said. “I know there are schools in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin that are doing similar things. I can’t possibly get to all of those. But I celebrate every school that is doing things intentionally to meet the needs of their students.”

And even if DeVos wanted to visit a Milwaukee public school, MPS board president Larry Miller says she would not be welcome. Miller was one of the protesters outside of St. Marcus.

“She has made it clear that she does not represent public education,” he said. “She wants to divert billions of dollars from public schools to private schools.”

DeVos ended her appearance at St. Marcus by outlining a vision in which all families had abundant education options. She held up Milwaukee as a model – saying she wanted to finish the work started here 30 years ago when the voucher program began.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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