Editor’s note: This story is the first in a six-part series.

RACINE, Wis. – For Racine parent Renee Solis, the new school choice program has been nothing less than a godsend.

school choice seriesJust a few years ago, Solis’ son, Brytton Hurd, was struggling in his Racine public elementary school. While Brytton brought home good report cards, Solis wondered if they accurately reflected her son’s progress.

“He had poor organizational skills and he never had homework, yet he was getting all A’s,” Solis tells EAGnews.

She also worried about Brytton’s physical safety at school. Solis said he was being assaulted by a classmate for several months, but school officials refused to move him to another classroom.

Solis grew so concerned about Brytton’s future that she eventually pulled him out of the school. She couldn’t afford to send him to a private school, so she began homeschooling him.

“I was very unhappy with the experience he was having,” she says. “I knew I had to do something regarding Brytton’s education. I just didn’t know how financially.”

When Solis learned about Racine’s new Parental Choice Program – which provides qualifying families with a $6,442 voucher to attend the school of their choice – she moved quickly to enroll Brytton and her youngest son, Edgar Solis, into the program.

Things fell into place for Solis and her sons, both of whom are enrolled at Wisconsin Lutheran School, a private Christian school located in Racine.

Brytton, now a fifth-grader, says his new classmates are “nicer” and that he feels “more secure” in his new school. The school’s academics are more challenging – as evidenced by the three hours he spends on homework each night – but he’s very happy with his new school.

“There was an adjustment,” he admits. “But I was very happy to make it.”

Choice program gets seal of approval from parents, researchers

Solis’ sons are among the 500 students who are making use of Racine’s Parental Choice Program, which was established by the state in 2011. The program is at its maximum capacity for the current school year, but the enrollment cap will be abolished for the 2013-14 school year.

That means almost any family interested in school choice options can receive a $6,442 voucher for each child, provided they live in the Racine Unified School District and have an income that is less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Unfortunately, parents who are already sending their children to a private school don’t qualify for the voucher plan, unless their child is entering kindergarten or ninth grade.

Both religious and secular private schools can accept voucher students, if they meet Wisconsin’s fiscal accountability standards and accreditation requirements, which have been tightened in recent years. Eleven schools are currently involved in the Racine program.

As innovative as Racine’s school choice plan may seem to outsiders, it’s simply following in the footsteps of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – the oldest and largest school choice program in the nation.

The Milwaukee school choice program has grown steadily since its inception in 1990, when only 300 students and 7 non-sectarian private schools participated. The enrollment cap was raised several times over the past two decades before being completely abolished by lawmakers in 2011.

A 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision allowed religious schools to accept voucher students, as long as families were allowed to opt-out of any religious activities.

The choice program has proven to be a big hit with Milwaukee families. According to the recent figures, more than one-in-five of the city’s students are attending one of the 112 participating private schools.

While parent and student satisfaction are the most important measuring sticks, researchers have also given a big thumbs up to Milwaukee’s school choice program. A five-year study conducted by the University of Arkansas found that 94 percent of students who used the voucher program during all four years of high school graduated on time, compared with 75 percent of students who remained in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Voucher students are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college, researchers found.

While voucher and public school students are scoring about the same on state tests, “the private schools are better at getting kids across the finish line,” wrote Patrick McIlheran in a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column. And that has significant ramifications for students’ futures.

Researchers report that high school graduates are less likely to become criminals and are more likely to live healthy lives. And students who go on to graduate from college are far less likely to end up poor.

Critics might downplay those results by suggesting that private schools are simply attracting voucher students who are already successful.  But as choice proponents note, parents whose children are doing well in school tend to stay put. Parents of struggling students, however, are more likely to search out new options.

That means at least a fair percentage of current voucher students were being underserved in their previous schools.

School choice programs might expand in 2013

It’s believed that Wisconsin lawmakers will try to expand the school choice program to other cities during the new legislative session. Gov. Scott Walker has expressed interest in the idea, but has stopped short of promising it will be on his agenda for 2013.

School choice advocates hope lawmakers consider increasing the voucher amount, which is currently $6,442 per student. Unless that happens, private schools might not be able to accommodate many new students.

“We can’t open the floodgates because the voucher amount doesn’t cover the cost of education,” Shoreland Lutheran High School Principal Paul Scriver tells EAGnews.

Scriver says the voucher program has helped fill Shoreland’s existing open seats, but it doesn’t make it financially feasible for the school to add new seats, which would require additional teachers. The school currently has 41 voucher students, but Scriver notes there might only be space for five new arrivals next year.

Some voucher supporters say lawmakers should open up the school choice program to families who are already sending their children to a private school.

Dawn Dahms is a Racine parent who’s part of that group. She and her husband have been paying out of their pockets to send four of their children to private schools.

She says her family meets the financial and residency requirements for the choice program, but they can only take part in it when their children begin kindergarten or ninth grade.

“We’re being penalized because we cared about our kids to already put them in private school,” Dahms tells EAGnews.

Wisconsin residents will have a better sense of where school choice ranks on lawmaker’s list of priorities when Gov. Walker releases his biennial budget proposal in February.  Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has indicated that he’s eager to expand the voucher plan.

“If there are other parts of the state that have issues where there are parents that are concerned about the quality of their own public schools, I’d like to open the dialogue to say, ‘Should we give them an opportunity to have school choice as well?’” Vos told JournalTimes.com last month.

Renee Solis would also like to see school choice programs expanded throughout the state, and points to Brytton’s success as evidence that the program works.

“He’d be going down a different road if he hadn’t changed schools,” she says.

Next Wednesday:  Racine teacher finds hope for her struggling son in a private school.

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