Roman and Sheila Griffin grew up in Gary, Ind. They knew firsthand that Gary wasn’t the best place to raise a family; the school system was struggling and the city’s violent crime rate is nearly triple what it is statewide. So in 2002, the Griffins moved their young family to the nearby suburb of Merrillville, Ind.
Their oldest son, Roman Jr., enrolled at the local public school. His experience started off well, but by the time Roman Jr. reached middle school he had become a C-student.
“It got to the point where we noticed no one could keep his attention,” Roman Sr. said. “He’s not slow, he’s not dumb. He’s always been a very smart kid. But he needed more one-on-one type teaching versus a classroom of about 30 children at a time.”
A mortgage, two car loans and three more siblings at home meant the Griffins couldn’t afford to send Roman Jr. to a private school that could better accommodate his unique learning style. But fortunately, around this same time, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had just enacted a school voucher law that would give families like the Griffins money to spend at a school of their choice.
The Griffins heard about the program at church. There would be an application process, and only a limited number of students would be accepted to the program. But they wanted to throw their hat in the ring, so they applied – and prayed.
About a month before the next school year started, the Griffins were elated to learn that the three oldest of their five children had been accepted to the program. They left the neighborhood public school and enrolled at an area private school, Ambassador Christian Academy.
“Within his first year, Roman went from [being] a C-average student to missing honor roll by just one point,” Roman Sr. said. “The teachers were more hands-on. The class sizes were smaller, so they were able to work with him one on one. The teachers communicated at a very high level with us and with him.”
All five of the Griffin’s children have been approved to participate in Indiana’s school voucher program next year. They’re among nearly 10,000 students statewide who are participating in Indiana’s program, and among thousands more who participate in educational choice programs nationwide.
School choice programs such as charters and vouchers are taking education by storm. Study after study has shown choice programs improve educational outcomes, even in some of the country’s most challenging communities. But more importantly, these programs are giving parents and students choice and control over their education – allowing them to find a place to learn that best suits their personal and unique needs.
Indiana is not alone in its school choice efforts. According to the Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Georgia, there are 26 school choice programs in 16 states and Washington, D.C. More than 190,000 students nationwide use public funds to attend the private school of their choice.
The nation’s first voucher program was started in Milwaukee in 1990. Dr. Howard Fuller, a distinguished professor of education at Marquette University and a longtime education reformer, was instrumental in getting this program off the ground.
The fight for this law and for more educational opportunity started long before the 1990s. Fuller describes this fight as the “struggle for educational equality,” which he said he joined in 1976. He felt called to this line of work after his own experience attending a public school in Milwaukee as a child.
“We live in a society where, if you have money, and schools do not work for you, you’re either going to move to a community where they do work, you’re going to take your kids out and put them in private schools or you’re going to find the best tutorial service you can for your kids,” Fuller said. “So at the end of the day, the people who are forced to stay in schools that do not work for them are the poorest families who do not have the resources.”
This, he says, is a question of educational justice. Over the course of his lengthy career, he’s often posed the question: Should America be a place in which only those with money have the ability to choose a good school for their kids?
To him and others in Milwaukee, the answer was no. So in 1990, the city launched a voucher program for city students.
Today, the program allows children from low-income and working-class families in Milwaukee the opportunity to use tax-supported vouchers to escape the public school system – where the graduation rate is lower than 50 percent – and attend a private school.
Programs such as the one in Milwaukee have not been without scrutiny, however. Despite empirical evidence showing the benefits of such programs, many in the media continue to describe the results of choice programs as “mixed” or “debatable.” Meanwhile, choice programs are continuously under attack by advocates for teachers unions and monopolized public education.
In Milwaukee, for example, the voucher program has been in existence for more than 20 years. Currently, more than 25,000 students are enrolled in the city’s private school voucher program and nearly 19,000 more attend Milwaukee’s public charter schools. Yet as recently as January 2013, anti-choice activist Diane Ravitch penned a commentary piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper calling for the state to end its choice programs and spend taxpayer dollars only on the Milwaukee Public Schools system.
Wrote Ravitch: “Vouchers and charters had their chance. They failed. Now it is time to build a great public school system that meets the needs of the children of Milwaukee … it is impossible to achieve these goals in a city with three competing school systems. It is entirely possible to achieve when there is one school system that becomes the focus …”
While Ravitch’s call to action was strong, the data to back up her point is not. Shutting down Milwaukee’s choice programs literally would result in kids not finishing high school or going to college.
Researchers Patrick J. Wolf and John F. Witte have studied educational outcomes in Milwaukee’s choice program at the request of the Wisconsin state government. Wolf is 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas and Witte is a professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to their research, school choice in Milwaukee had a “modest, but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”
Wolf and Witte found that students who participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduated from high school and “both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools.” From a practical standpoint, that means there were 32 additional high school graduates who went on to college out of the 801-student ninth grade class of 2006.
Education reformers on both sides of the aisle have long lamented Illinois’ confusing and ineffective formulas for funding public education.
“Illinois’ current education funding system is convoluted, fiscally unsustainable and rife with problems,” said Josh Dwyer, director of education reform at the Illinois Policy Institute.
While Illinois has not seen the level of reform that neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana have experienced, there is movement on the education front. In the Illinois General Assembly, two prominent education reforms were proposed. While they did not pass
and become law, this demonstrates that there’s movement behind education reform law.
Senate Bill 1248, sponsored by state Sens. Matt Murphy, Bill Brady, Michael Connelly and Jim Oberweis, would have provided vouchers to students in underperforming or overcrowded schools in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, Senate Bill 1777, would have provided scholarships to students in underperforming or overcrowded schools in Cook County through scholarship granting organizations. Connelly has sponsored this bill.
Ultimately, families and students in Illinois would benefit most from a total voucher system in which parents are empowered to choose an educational provider that works best for their unique needs.
“Not only does [a voucher system] allow money to follow the child, it produces better outcomes for students,” Dwyer said. “It removes the costly barrier for families looking for a better education for their children, and it allows parents to find a school that works for them – plain and simple.”