Nearly 25 years ago, business leaders in Milwaukee came to me deeply concerned that they couldn’t find enough qualified workers among the students leaving the Milwaukee Public Schools. At the same time, African-American parents came to me worried about their children’s future in a school system that wasn’t meeting their needs.
So, together, the city’s parents and the business community pleaded with state leaders to give these families a better option. Working with a Democratic Assembly and Senate, we created both the nation’s first private school choice program and a series of additional educational options including independent charter schools.
And it worked. Today, the children of Milwaukee have a wider array of educational options than students anywhere else in America. Children in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college than their peers in the Milwaukee public school system. That accomplishment is all the more impressive because graduation rates in the Milwaukee Public Schools are also up. Choice and competition has improved the graduation rates for all of Milwaukee’s students.
Now school choice must be expanded to other communities in Wisconsin where students are struggling to graduate from high school.
A high school degree is the first step to success in this economy. Yet, the chances that an African-American student will earn a high school diploma are now better in Milwaukee than in the Madison. The four-year graduation rate for African-American students in Madison is only 53 percent while in Milwaukee it is 59 percent. In Green Bay, the odds for an African-American student are even more daunting - only half of that city’s African-American students will graduate from high school.
It isn’t just African-American students who are failing to make the first rung on the ladder of success. In fact, the largest gap in the state between high school graduation rates for white and Hispanic students is in the Green Bay schools. Indeed, a Hispanic student in Green Bay is less likely to earn a high school diploma than a Hispanic student in Milwaukee.
In his budget, Governor Walker proposed expanding private school choice and independent charter options to nine additional school districts: Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, Waukesha, West Allis, Fond du Lac, Beloit, Sheboygan and Superior. In nearly every one of these districts, the attainment gap for earning a high school diploma is larger for African-American or Hispanic students than in the Milwaukee. In recent days, the Governor and legislative leaders have suggested expanding school choice even further by making it available to families statewide.
It is essential to the future of these children and the future of this state for these children to get a high school degree. That is why I believe it is important for Wisconsin to expand private school choice statewide to as many families as possible. I trust the state legislature will give these families new hope by giving their children better educational options. These children can’t wait any longer for the chance to attend the school that will transform their lives.
Tommy G. Thompson served as the Governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001. He signed into law the nation’s first modern private school choice program in April of 1990.