Milwaukee’s Academy of Excellence offers lesson in what school vouchers mean for education – and parents’ ability to choose
As of the start of this school year, there were 314 private schools and 17,079 students taking part in the school voucher program serving all of Wisconsin except Milwaukee and Racine, which have their own voucher programs.
The second-largest enrollment figure statewide was 387 students attending several Catholic schools in Green Bay that administer the program jointly, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
The largest enrollment in the statewide program — almost three times that Green Bay total — was 1,111 students who were in a remote and virtual program offered by the Academy of Excellence, a private Christian school in Milwaukee. The school also had 772 students who are part of Milwaukee’s voucher program, another 81 enrolled through the Racine program, and nine in the state’s special needs scholarships program for private school students.
Altogether, the Academy of Excellence had 1,973 students whose education, with a strongly evangelical approach, is paid for by public money. The school was on track to receive more than $16 million in public funding for the current school year.
The eye-catching, entirely legal situation of the Academy of Excellence illustrates several important points about education in Wisconsin. Here are four of them:
School vouchers have changed the education landscape
It’s been 33 years since Wisconsin became the first state to provide public money for students to attend private schools in an urban setting. Voucher use started small and was limited to nonreligious schools in Milwaukee.
But the program boomed after the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998 became the first court of that rank in America to rule that it was constitutional for public money to be used to teach students in religious schools. During Scott Walker’s tenure as governor (2011-19), voucher programs were added for Racine, the rest of Wisconsin and special ed students.
This year, more than 52,000 students statewide are attending private schools using vouchers. That’s more than 5% of all students in the state who are getting publicly funded education. In Milwaukee, a quarter of all publicly funded students are in private schools, the large majority of them religious schools.
The Academy of Excellence, which opened in 2012, has three buildings in Milwaukee for in-person classes and also provides remote/virtual programs for children from all over the state. (Kids in the state voucher program can’t be from Milwaukee, but their school can be in Milwaukee — and vice versa for Milwaukee kids enrolling in schools outside the city.)
Randy Melchert, the founder and leader of the Academy of Excellence, is a graduate of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, a widely known conservative Christian school. Melchert, who has a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, has also been active in Republican politics and in legal organizations, primarily as an advocate for religious causes.
The academy opened in 2012 with about 100 students. It uses a curriculum from Bob Jones University for its in-person classes and a curriculum for its virtual remote and virtual programs from Abeka, which is connected to Pensacola Christian College in Florida. Melchert said teacher recruiting efforts focus on biblical colleges.
Public funding for schools such as this would have been imaginable before 1990. Now it’s both legal and common. Furthermore, while Wisconsin was the first state to approve such programs, school choice involving private and religious schools is becoming increasingly common across the U.S. There has been recent surge of action, especially in Republican-led states, to launch or expand vouchers or variations on vouchers.
Home schooling or virtual schooling remains popular, but still small
Melchert said that, in general, the school’s students from around the state are from families who want a Christian education and would be likely to home school their children. But the academy offers a structured program with teachers, which appeals to many parents. Kids get videos and other material they use at home while working remotely with teachers. And there is no tuition, thanks to vouchers.
The academy’s virtual program has grown rapidly. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is one reason. According to data from the DPI, in fall 2016, the school had no students in the statewide voucher program. In 2017, it had one; in 2018 it had nine; and in 2019, it had 12.
Then came the pandemic. In 2020, it had 131. A year later, it was 404. And at the start of this school year, it was that remarkable 1,111.
Enrollment in nonreligious virtual school programs and use of traditional home schooling also have grown during the pandemic. Overall, though, they remain a small piece of Wisconsin’s total school picture.
In fall 2021, there were 29,402 home-schooled children in Wisconsin, out of the total of 980,274 schoolchildren, according to the DPI. Totals for fall 2022 have not been posted. And virtual schools, often offered by public school districts, have grown, but also enroll a single-digit percentage of the students statewide.
The student population in Wisconsin is becoming more diverse
Wisconsin’s school population remains predominantly white. But that is changing bit by bit as the numbers of Black, Hispanic and Asian students increase and the total number of students decreases.
In 2021-22 — the most recent year posted by the DPI — 68% of public school students statewide were white, 13% were Hispanic, 8% Black and 4% of Asian ethnicity. Another 5% were listed as having two or more ethnic or racial identities.
By comparison, in 2015-16, 71% were white, 11% Hispanic, 9% black, 4% Asian, and 3% of two or more racial/ethnic identities.
In the state’s larger school districts, the percentages of white students are much lower than the state average. In Milwaukee, fewer than 10% of students are white. In Madison, 41% of students a year ago were white. In Green Bay, it was 40%. In Racine, it was 36%.
The total statewide public school enrollment was 867,137 in 2015-16 and 829,143 in 2021-22. That decline of more than 4% is important.
The Academy of Excellence can be seen as a small part of the trends.
While voucher enrollment remains a small part of the statewide picture, it is significant. The increase in voucher use is connected generally to the decline in public school enrollment. Without vouchers, how many of the 1,111 out-state children enrolled in the academy would be in public schools in their home communities? It’s unknown, especially given the religious motivations many parents have to enroll in the academy. But the movement from public schools to private schools is notable.
Also, when I visited the academy’s elementary school at 4200 N. 51st St., Milwaukee, I was struck by one aspect of the student body: Not only was it predominantly non-white kids, but school leaders said about half of the 300 students are of Karen ethnicity.
Many people have never heard of the Karen. Thousands of Karen fled their homelands in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in recent years because of persecution. A sizeable number came to Milwaukee. Some Milwaukee public schools have concentrations of Karen children.
A tour of the classrooms at the academy showed how much of a presence they have in this private school. As is generally true with relatively new immigrants whose parents received limited formal education, the children face educational challenges.
The challenges of urban schools of all kinds
Then you have the overall picture of academic achievement for Academy of Excellence students — and for urban students in general.
No, the achievement of students at the Academy of Excellence is not very good. The state report card for the academy, issued last fall, gave the school a rating of “meets few expectations” and two stars out of a possible five.
On state tests given a year ago, 4% of students were rated as proficient in English language arts, and 79% were “below basic,” the lowest bracket. In math, 2% were proficient, and 85% were below basic.
But that isn’t much different than a long list of public and other private schools serving low-income and non-white children in Milwaukee. The academy fits into a much bigger and more worrisome picture.
A tour of the north side school indicated it was generally orderly and students were well behaved. Class sizes were small, compared to many schools. The academic content and presentation did not appear to be as rigorous and well developed as what one would see in higher-performing schools, including some serving low-income children.
Melchert, along with Jose Guzman, superintendent of the three academy buildings in Milwaukee, and Claude Grant, principal of the North 51st Street building, said they had seen advances in the academic skills of many children, and the religious-oriented emphasis on character development was showing good results.
“Academically, I want to be the best one in the state,” Guzman said of the school.
The academy is not there, at least not yet. But the fact that, with almost 2,000 students, it is where it is at all means it offers important lessons in what is happening in education in Wisconsin, what at least some parents are choosing for their children and what public funding is allowing them to choose.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Vouchers mean private education can be paid for with public funds