MILWAUKEE (AP) — During a break in the hallway between St. Marcus Lutheran Church and its adjoining school, eighth-grade student Annii Kinepoway was quick to explain what she learned to love about the better here – the good Lord and the good grades.
“I like knowing that there is someone you can ask for help if you need it. Someone is out there watching you,” she said of her newfound faith, while proudly wearing the tie indicating her academic honors.
Annii’s mother could only afford this educational opportunity because of school choice programs, which 94% of St. Marcus’ 1,160 students in Milwaukee also use.
“It changed our lives for the better,” said Wishkub Kinepoway, a Native American and African American single mother. “She says, ‘I really like St. Marcus because I don’t have to pretend I’m not smart. “”
School choice is one of many education issues have become a partisan battleground, bringing parents to the polls this fall. A central question is to what extent, if any, tax dollars should pay private school tuition, instead of only funding public schools. Critics say such programs weaken public schools, including costs remain high even if students transfer, taking with them state funding.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened tensions. Public schools have often been closed longer than private schools, and extended online learning has been related to significant learning losses.
But many low-income parents in neighborhoods like the predominantly African American North Side of Milwaukee or the Latin American South Side say voucher programs — introduced here three decades ago — are the only way for their children to attend religious institutions. They say these schools teach structure and values in a way that public schools are often too overwhelmed to do.
“It’s a huge difference because it’s support in faith and in values,” said Lorena Ramirez, whose four children attend St. Anthony, within walking distance of the South Side Milwaukee home. “I was looking for a school that could help me.”
St. Anthony is one of the largest Catholic schools in the country — 1,500 students on five campuses that are 99% Latino and almost entirely covered by public funds, its president, Rosana Mateo, said. It was founded by German immigrants 150 years ago, just like St. Marcus.
Until the 1960s, urban parochial schools could rely on funding from thriving parishes and a cheap payroll, since nuns often taught for free. Without these supports, schools began charging hefty tuition, now reaching $8,000 to $9,000 per school year, which is unaffordable for most working-class families.
“Our most needy students should have the option of going to private schools,” said Mateo, former deputy superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.
The expansion and politicization of voucher programs, however, “no longer targets truly poor children” but rather “disproportionately helps middle-class white students,” said Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research found that students of color have lower test scores and pass rates when they attend low-quality private schools because most voucher programs don’t allow transportation to higher-performing schools.
Although faith-based urban schools don’t necessarily outperform all public schools in test scores, their students enjoy better civic outcomes, from college graduation rates to reduced drug use, said Patrick Wolf, a professor of education at the University of Arkansas.
“They contribute more to the community than just educating kids,” Wolf said.
In Omaha, Nebraska – a Wolf state called a “desert of school choice” — three Catholic schools threatened with closure form a foundation.
They have raised millions of dollars to serve nearly 600 children, 93% of whom are students of color and all of whom are in need of financial assistance, said the Reverend Dave Korth, president of the foundation and pastor of one of the parishes concerned.
Reliable public funds would ensure the sustainability of schools for parents who choose them “not because of burning political issues. They just want their children placed in faith-based environments because they believe they will be better citizens,” Korth said.
Arizona is on the other end of the school choice spectrum – against strong opposition, its governor signed off on one of the country’s largest voucher system expansions, allowing each parent to use public funds for private tuition or other education costs.
One such parent is Jill Voss, who uses tuition assistance to send her three children to Phoenix Christian School PreK-8, where she is an athletic director and physical education teacher. She is an alumnus, as are her parents and grandparents, who were among the first students when the school opened in 1959.
“A big part of the reason we chose Phoenix Christian was because of our family and just knowing my kids were getting a good Christian foundation for their schooling,” Voss said. “The church and having a church family is important to us.”
Diamond Figueroa, a sixth-grade student who attends Phoenix Christian on financial aid along with 98% of her classmates, said she wasn’t always comfortable in public school, even though more many students there were also Hispanic.
“Everyone here is so much nicer and more welcoming,” she said. “I’m not afraid to ask questions.”
They are general spiritual values rather than specific faith-based practices that parents and educators find helpful in preventing the fights and other aggressive behavior that has plagued schools recently.
“Let’s say there’s an argument between two kids ready to fight it out,” said Ernie DiDomizio, the principal of St. Catherine’s School, citing an example from this morning of students arguing over sneakers. Milwaukee Catholic School has 130 students, most of them African American and all enrolled in choice programs. “At that time, we prayed for grace and acceptance. In public schools, you can’t do that.
For recent immigrants, especially from Latin America, where Catholic traditions are more visible in public life, faith-based schools help maintain cultural ties.
Learning Mexican folk dances at St. Anthony, for example, helps her children feel more comfortable with their family’s culture, Ramirez said. The public schools where she first sent her eldest “don’t teach much about cultures. Here, there are all kinds and no one is discriminated against.
One of her daughter’s fifth-grade classmates, Evelyn Ramirez, loves St. Anthony’s lesson that God “created the world with good people and not just bad people.”
Catholic schools have historically played a major role in integrating Hispanic immigrants into American culture, especially when public schools were segregated, said Felipe Hinojosa, professor of Latin American politics and religion at Texas A&M University.
The continued racial divisions of many urban neighborhoods affect academic performance. St. Marcus is the only school — of 14 in the area that are 80% low-income and 80% African American — where more than 20% of students are fluent in reading, said St. Marcus Superintendent Henry Tyson .
“Parents send their kids to St. Marcus because they’re frustrated with the schools where their kids are failing,” Tyson said. “We want children to know that they are redeemed children of God. It’s transformative for their sense of self.”
When she enrolled in St. Marcus last year, Annii was unfamiliar with the prayers and the school uniform.
“The first day…I just stood there looking around, feeling uncomfortable and out of place. … Now I can do whatever I want in my relationship with God,” she said before rushing back to math class.
Mumphrey reported from Phoenix.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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