Now that school choice is catching on a bit in Wisconsin, some people are getting scared.

It was one thing to have school choice in Milwaukee or for something unusual like online schools, but it seems we’ve poked the hornets’ nest with the school choice reforms in open enrollment and voucher opportunities made last year and talk of potential gains in this new legislative session. Some, who rely the educational status quo for their livelihood, either through employment or special interest, are flexing their muscles. They are finding lawmakers willing to stall, or even reverse, progress. The reforms are working and the fear of what that means for those comfortable with the status quo is real.

We saw lots of muscle flexing in 2008 when parents like me stood up against the power of WEAC (our state teachers’ union) and our own Department of Public Instruction to save a few statewide online charter schools. We found lawmakers who listened and took up our cause. Over the course of the last several years we discovered that the laws that define teaching needed to be brought into the 21st century to recognize online instruction. Despite WEAC‘s pull to the past. Despite the millions of dollars lined up in defiance of progress, those changes were made and parents won.

When Charlie Sykes interviewed me, a mom from Mukwonago, on his radio program during our push for legislative action that January he called me an insurgent. If an insurgent challenges the status quo and agitates for remedies that serve the underserved, then it was an apt label. It took an insurgency then and it looks like that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that opponents have risen up in the some unlikely places.

Last year, despite the virulent opposition of school board and district administration organizations, parents partnered with Governor Walker and champions in the legislature to again expand freedoms for Wisconsin families. This time the push for freedom wasn’t for a just a few, but for all families in the state. Open enrollment opportunities here are now family-friendly. Now all parents in every school district statewide have the freedom to move their child to another public school if theirs is failing them. Parents can look at other nearby public schools and if a seat is available their child can be transferred for the next school year. In cases of bullying and other urgent situations, this transfer can happen immediately.  

The fear and pushback to these reforms were predictable and understandable.  Although we were dismayed when some self-identified conservatives balked at giving parents control over the enrollment options of their students.

Perhaps we were just naïve. After all, introducing other ways of schooling into the mix is a direct challenge to the way things have always been done. Government-run public schools have been given a steady flow of students for over a century just by the assignment of one school to each child as determined by how old they are and where they live. Most parents accept that assignment and trust the education it offers.  Exactly what that education includes and how it is delivered is largely left to the “experts” and many families have been fine with that arrangement.

So, our school districts suffer from an entitlement illusion. Resident children are counted and each one represents a funding allotment from various taxpayer sources. Each district feels ownership of those dollars and as we see so often bemoans loss and pain when resident children choose not to receive service in a district school and so don’t “count” for funding purposes. Of course, some visionary district administrators and school board members see children, not as dollars, but as learners whose needs come ahead of any thoughts of district ownership. They also see enrollment shifts as reason to examine quality, improve service, and attract customers.

That is what school choice does, of course. It turns complacent parents into discerning consumers. It makes schools earn and keep their business. It shifts the focus to results and how to achieve and then describe that success to prospective families. School choice must be an informed choice and there is work to do to give parents meaningful data so we can compare our options. We’ve begun that in Wisconsin, but have a long way to go to empower education consumers both during school selection and as children progress through a school career.

Some may be afraid of giving parents a choice among school options. Some think parents are not equipped to make the proper choice. Some think neighborhood schools must be preserved, as they are today, at all cost. Their interest is tied to the welfare of the system, so they put the system above all else. In a committee hearing on open enrollment reform last session, one of our Wisconsin senators admitted it wasn’t rational, but even so said he was inclined to build fences around neighborhood schools to keep children in since the welfare of the school depended on them staying there. He didn’t mention the welfare of the children.  Neither did the lawmaker concerned about what these reforms would do to the sports teams of his local school districts.

Thanks to the leadership of Governor Walker, we prevailed in our efforts to bring full year public school choice to Wisconsin through open enrollment reform. We’ve come a long way, but more needs to be done to ensure every Wisconsin child has access to the great education he or she deserves.

However, every push for reform is met with resistance from those who value the system first. And it doesn’t need to be that way.

As some of our most highly compensated educators, our district administrators can surely overcome any inconvenience or challenges posed by school choice. Our conservative lawmakers can’t give in to fear, but instead stand with our children and with educational options for all families. They must not be swayed away from reform by arguments that safeguard the system. The system can and will accommodate.

Neighborhood schools will always educate the vast majority of our boys and girls. We just need them to do the best job of it and to give us alternatives when it doesn’t make the grade.  Support for school choice among Wisconsin voters grows with each measure. Those who value freedom of school choice for Wisconsin families must watch closely and elect legislators who vote for family-friendly, child-centered reforms that expand our education marketplace.

It’s National School Choice Week. Whether your children attend their neighborhood public school, or even if you don’t have kids, this reform matters to you. For this mom knows that family-friendly, child-centered policies that expand our education marketplace and force competitive pressures onto a status quo are good for all taxpayers.


Fernandez is a mom from Mukwonago, a 2009 candidate for the Department of Public Instruction and an education reform advocate. You can follow her on twitter @DigitalEdMom.