The politics of education was on full display in Wisconsin’s capital on Tuesday — with two of the Trump administration’s top officials rallying support for school choice, and public education advocates calling for an end to those programs.
Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stopped in Madison for a School Choice Week celebration. Pence lauded Wisconsin’s longstanding school choice traditions during his speech in the Capitol rotunda.
"More and more Americans agree that the decision about where our kids go to school should not be up to bureaucrats or students’ ZIP code or their family’s income," Pence said. "Parents should decide where their kids go to school."
School choice is being celebrated around the United States this week. But in Wisconsin, supporters are also marking the 30th anniversary of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program — the oldest school voucher program in the nation. It provides taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for children from low and moderate-income families to attend private schools, most of them religious.
Milwaukee mother Anisha Monroe is one the parents who uses the program. Her third-grader goes to Granville Lutheran School, part of the LUMIN Schools network.
“It’s smaller classrooms, I feel like there’s a lot individualized on their education,” Monroe said. “I feel like the teachers are more like a parent as well as a teacher to my child.”
School choice expanded way beyond Milwaukee in the 30 years since the voucher program started. Last year, more than 40,000 students enrolled in choice schools, costing taxpayers about $350 million. Seventeen other states have their own voucher programs.
High school student Victor Mateos says he’s attended choice schools since kindergarten. He is currently a junior at the Catholic Messmer High School in Milwaukee.
“I think the biggest experience I’ve gotten is in my belief system. We have the ability to express ourselves and what we believe in,” Mateos said.
The most vocal advocate for education alternatives in the Trump administration has been DeVos. The education secretary’s stop in Madison on Tuesday was her second visit to celebrate school choice in Wisconsin in less than six months. As DeVos spoke, public education advocates interrupted her with shouts of "shame."
“Students, you keep me motivated every day,” DeVos told the crowd. “You’re why I’m here. I’m so happy to celebrate School Choice Week with you, and with thousands more across America.”
The education secretary is pushing for Congress to pass a proposal that would provide billions of dollars in tax credits for people who donate to school choice scholarships. DeVos and Pence emphasized not just their own support for educational options, but the president’s support as well.
“I’m here to tell you, President Trump stands for school choice for every American, and every American family,” Pence said.
Wisconsin is a key battleground in President Trump’s quest for reelection this November. Protestor Mark Kelderman said that Pence’s appearance in the capitol may be about garnering support for Trump, not just for school choice.
“We feel this whole event was staged just to be a reelection tool for Donald Trump and Michael Pence,” Kelderman said.
Kelderman and his fellow protestors object to voucher schools diverting funding from traditional public schools. Some lawmakers, like Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), agree that public schools are suffering because of school choice.
Right after Pence’s visit, Brostoff held a press conference to unveil a bill called the Public Education Reinvestment Act. He also took aim at the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children at the southern border.
“Vice President Pence and his administration have become experts in locking children up, but they are completely inept when it comes to educating children,” Brostoff said. “And that’s a problem.”
Brostoff’s bill would phase out Wisconsin’s voucher programs, and instead use state funds to lower public school class sizes.
But shutting down school vouchers has little chance of passing Wisconsin’s GOP-dominated Legislature. In fact, the most powerful Republican in the senate, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said at Tuesday’s rally that as long as Republicans are in control, they plan to keep Wisconsin’s school choice landscape the way it is.
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