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MILWAUKEE — During a break in the hallway between St. Mark Lutheran Church and its school, eighth grader Annii Kinepoway didn’t hesitate to explain what she learned to love best here: the good God and good grades.
“I like to know that there is someone you can turn to for help when you need it. There’s someone looking over you,” she said of her new-found faith, proudly wearing the tie as a token of her academic honor.
Annii’s mother could only afford this education opportunity because of school elective programs, which are also used by 94% of St. Mark’s 1,160 students in Milwaukee.
“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 that have become a partisan arena, driving parents to the polls this fall. A key question is to what extent, if at all, taxpayers’ money should pay for private school tuition, rather than just funding public schools. Critics say such programs weaken public schools, whose costs remain high even as students transfer, taking some state funding with them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions. Public schools have often been closed for longer than private ones, and extensive online learning has been associated with significant learning losses.
But many low-income parents in neighborhoods like Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side or Latino South Side say voucher programs—introduced here three decades ago—are the only way their children can attend faith-based institutions. They say those 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 a support in faith and in values,” said Lorena Ramirez, whose four children attend St. Anthony, a walking distance from home on the south side of Milwaukee. “I was looking for a school that would 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 funding, said the president, Rosana Mateo. It was founded 150 years ago by German immigrants, just like St. Marcus.
Until the 1960s, urban parochial schools could count on funding from thriving parishes and cheap labor costs, as nuns often taught for free. Without that support, schools began charging significant tuition fees, now up to $8,000-$9,000 per academic year — unaffordable for most working-class families.
“Our most needy students should be given the opportunity to attend private schools,” said Mateo, a former deputy director of public schools in Milwaukee.
However, the expansion and politicization of voucher programs is “no longer targeting really poor kids,” but rather “helping disproportionately large, middle-class white students,” said Gary Orfield, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of Washington. Amsterdam. University of California, Los Angeles. His research found that students of color have lower test scores and graduation rates when attending low-quality private schools because most voucher programs do not allow transportation to higher-performing schools.
While urban faith-based schools don’t necessarily outperform all public schools on test scores, their students enjoy better social outcomes from college graduation to lower drug use, said Patrick Wolf, a professor of education at the university. from Arkansas.
“They contribute more to the community than just educating the kids,” Wolf said.
In Omaha, Nebraska — a state Wolf calls a “school-choice desert” — three Catholic schools that threatened to close formed a foundation.
They have raised millions of dollars to serve nearly 600 children, 93% of whom are students of color and all in need of financial assistance, said Rev. Dave Korth, president of the foundation and pastor of one of the affiliated parishes.
Reliable public funds would keep the schools sustainable for parents who choose them “not because of political hot-button stuff. They just want their kids in a faith-based environment because they think they’ll be better citizens,” Korth said.
Arizona is on the other end of the spectrum of school choices — against strong opposition, the governor signed one of the nation’s broadest extensions to the voucher system, allowing any parent to use public funds for private tuition or other education costs.
One such parent is Jill Voss, who uses her school fees to send her three children to Phoenix Christian School PreK-8, where she is the athletic director and physical education teacher. She is an alumna, like 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 the knowledge that my children were getting a good Christian foundation for their education,” Voss said. “Having a church and a church family is important to us.”
Diamond Figueroa, a sixth-grader who goes to Phoenix Christian thanks to financial aid, like 98% of her classmates, said she didn’t always feel comfortable in public school, although there were also more students in Latin America.
“Everyone here is so much nicer and more welcoming,” she said. “I’m not afraid to ask questions.”
It is broad spiritual values rather than specific church practices that parents and educators find helpful in preventing the fighting and other aggressive behavior that schools have recently faced.
“Suppose there’s a dispute between two kids who are about to spiral out of control,” said Ernie DiDomizio, the director of the St. Catherine School, citing an example of that morning when students argued over sneakers. The Catholic school in Milwaukee has 130 students, most of them African American and all enrolled through elective programs. “At that time, we prayed for mercy and acceptance. You can’t do that in public schools.”
For recent immigrants, especially from Latin America, where Catholic traditions are more visible in public life, faith-based schools help maintain cultural ties.
For example, teaching Mexican folkloric dances in St. Anthony can help her children feel more at home in their family’s culture, Ramirez said. The public schools she first sent her eldest to “don’t teach much about cultures. There are all kinds here, and no one is discriminated against.”
One of her daughter’s classmates, Evelyn Ramirez, likes St. Anthony’s lesson that God “made the world with good people, not just mean people.”
Catholic schools have traditionally played an important role in integrating Hispanic immigrants into American culture, especially when public schools were segregated, said Felipe Hinojosa, a professor of Latino politics and religion at Texas A&M University.
Continuing racial divisions in many urban neighborhoods affect school performance. St. Marcus is the only school — out of 14 in the 80% low-income area and 80% African American — where more than 20% of students are proficient in reading, said St. Marcus superintendent Henry Tyson.
“Parents send their kids to St. Marcus because they are frustrated with schools where 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. Mark’s last year, Annii was unfamiliar with the prayers and school uniform.
“On the first day… I stood there looking around, feeling uncomfortable and out of place. … Now I can do my own thing in my relationship with God,” she said, before going back to math class.
Mumphrey reported from Phoenix.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.