MILWAUKEE (AP) – In the hallway between St. Marcus Lutheran Church and its charter school, eighth-grader Annii Kinepoway didn’t hesitate to explain what she learned to love best here: a good Lord and good grades.
“I like to know that you can ask for help if you need someone. Someone is out there and they’re watching over you,” he said of his newfound faith, proudly wearing a tie representing his academic honors.
Annii’s mother was only able to afford this educational opportunity because of school choice programs, which are also used by 94% of the 1,160 students at St. Marcus in Milwaukee. “It has changed our lives for the better,” said Wishkub Kinepoway, a Native American and African-American single mother. “He says, ‘I really love St. Marcus because I don’t have to pretend I’m not bright.'”
School choice is one of the education issues that has become a partisan battleground, leading parents to vote this fall. A major question is how much taxpayer money should pay for private school tuition, rather than just funding public schools. Critics say such programs weaken public schools, and their costs remain high even as students transfer, taking some state funding with them.
The COVID-19 pandemic heightened tensions. Public schools were often closed for longer than private schools, and widespread online learning has been linked to significant learning losses. But many low-income parents in Milwaukee’s North American or Latino neighborhoods say the voucher programs — introduced here three decades ago — are the only way for their children to attend faith-based institutions. They say that these schools teach structure and values in a way that often overwhelms the public.
“It’s a big difference because it’s a support in faith and values,” said Lorena Ramirez, whose four children attend St. Anthony’s, within walking distance of their home south of Milwaukee. “I was looking for a school that would help me.” San Antonio is one of the largest Catholic schools in the country: 1,500 students on five campuses are 99% Latino and almost entirely covered by public funding, said its president, Rosana Mateo. It was founded by German immigrants 150 years ago, like San Marco.
Until the 1960s, urban parochial schools were able to finance themselves from wealthy parishes and cheap payroll costs, as nuns often taught for free. Without such support, schools began charging high tuition, now up to $8,000-$9,000 per school year, unaffordable for most working-class families. “Our poorest students should be able to go to private schools,” said Mateo, a former Milwaukee public schools superintendent.
The expansion and politicization of voucher programs, however, “no longer targets poor kids” but “disproportionately helps white, middle-class students,” said Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. University of California, Los Angeles. His research found that students of color have lower test scores and graduation rates when they attend low-quality private schools because most voucher programs don’t allow them to transfer to higher-performing ones.
While urban, faith-based schools don’t necessarily outperform all publics on test scores, their students have better civic outcomes, from college graduation rates to lower drug use, said University of Arkansas education professor Patrick Wolf.
“They help the community with more than just educating the kids,” Wolfe said. In Omaha, Nebraska — a state Wolfe called a “school choice desert” — three Catholic schools in danger of closing formed a foundation.
They have raised millions of dollars to serve nearly 600 children, 93 percent of whom are students of color and all in need of financial assistance, said the Rev. Dave Korth, the foundation’s president and pastor of the parishes. Reliable public funding would keep the schools sustainable for parents who choose them “not for political reasons. They want their children in faith-based environments because they believe they will be better citizens,” Korth said.
Arizona is at the other end of the school choice spectrum: Against strong opposition, its governor signed one of the nation’s most expansive voucher systems, allowing all parents to use public funds for private tuition or other educational expenses. One of those parents is Jill Voss, who is using tuition assistance to send her three children to Phoenix Christian School PreK-8, where she is the athletic director and physical education teacher. He is a former student, like his parents and grandparents, who were among the first students when the school opened in 1959.
“A lot of the reason we chose Phoenix Christian was because of our family and knowing that my kids were getting a good Christian foundation for school,” Voss said. “To have a church and a church family is important to us.” Diamond Figueroa, a sixth-grader who like 98 percent of her classmates attends Phoenix Christian, said she wasn’t always comfortable at the public school, even though the students there are more Hispanic. “Everyone here is so much nicer and nicer,” she said. “I’m not afraid to ask questions.”
It is the broad religious values, rather than specific denominational practices, that parents and educators see as helping to prevent the fighting and other aggressive behavior that has plagued schools recently. “Say there’s a conflict between two kids who are ready to go to blows,” St. Catherine School Principal Ernie DiDomizio said, citing an example from that morning when students were fighting over sneakers. The Catholic school in Milwaukee has 130 students, most of whom are African-American and all of whom are enrolled through option programs. “At that point, we asked for grace and acceptance. You can’t do that in public schools.’
For recent immigrants, especially those from Latin America, where Catholic traditions are more visible in public life, faith-based schools help maintain cultural ties. Learning Mexican folkloric dances in San Antonio, for example, helps her children feel more at home with their family’s culture, Ramirez said. The public schools that sent the eldest for the first time “don’t teach much about cultures. There are all kinds here, and no one is discriminated against.”
One of her daughter’s fifth grade classmates, Evelyn Ramirez, likes San Antonio’s lesson that “God made the world with good people and not just bad people.” Catholic schools historically played a large role in integrating Hispanic immigrants into American culture, especially when public schools were segregated, said Felipe Hinojosa, professor of Latino politics and religion at Texas A&M University.
Persistent racial segregation in many urban neighborhoods affects school performance. St. Marcus is the only school — out of 14 in the area that is 80 percent low-income and 80 percent African American — where more than 20 percent of students are proficient in reading, said Henry Tyson St. Superintendent Marcus. “Parents send their kids to St. Marcus because they’re frustrated with the schools their kids are failing,” Tyson said. “We want children to know that they are redeemed children of God. It is transformative for their sense of self.’
When she enrolled at St. Marcus last year, Annii didn’t know the prayers and the school uniform. “The first day…I stood there looking around, feeling awkward and out of place. … Now I can do my thing in my relationship with God,” he said before returning to math class.
Mumphrey reported from Phoenix.
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