- - Thursday, January 30, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence came to Wisconsin this week to help celebrate School Choice Week. Appropriate, as Milwaukee is the home to the first school choice voucher program in the nation.

Thanks to the leadership of former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) began in 1990. Today, some 28,000 low-income students utilize a voucher to attend a private school in Milwaukee.

Since the beginning of the parental school choice program in Milwaukee, studies have shown that students do better attending a private school on a voucher than they do in traditional public school. According to the latest research, students in the Milwaukee voucher program score on average 4 percent higher in math and 5 percent higher in reading than students in the public school system. In fact, religious schools in the MPCP perform better than public schools by even higher margins, with Catholic schools outperforming public schools by 8.9 percent in English and 4.1 percent in math, when accounting for socioeconomic factors.

Students at private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are more likely to graduate from college, be gainfully employed and lead successful lives. One of my favorite memories in office had been visiting Hope Christian Schools on the days when they’ve held signing ceremonies where every one of their graduating seniors announces the college or university (two-year or four-year) they will be attending in the fall. This was an exciting moment.

Because of the success of Milwaukee’s program, we created a similar program in the City of Racine in 2011 and then expanded it statewide in 2013. During our tenure, we also expanded opportunities for charter schools, created a scholarship program for special needs students and made the largest actual dollar investment ever at the time in our public schools. In fact, we empowered public schools to embrace many of the reforms used by successful choice and charters schools.

Children and families all across America deserve positive choices. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to education reform.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard Espinoza v. Montana. A favorable ruling in this case could dramatically expand school choice across the country.

In 2015, a new law went into effect in Montana that created a school choice program that would give children the ability to attend a private school through the Big Sky Scholarships program, funded by private donations through a tax credit scholarship. Kendra Espinoza, a single mom, wanted to send her two daughters to a religious school in Montana through this new program.

But soon after it started, the Montana Department of Revenue declared that the scholarships must be used only for non-religious private schools. For the Espinoza family, this contributed to her having to work a night shift as a janitor in order to scrape money together for her daughters to attend their private Christian school. Other families have had to leave their private schools and go back to public schools.

The public interest law firm, Institute for Justice, is representing Ms. Espinoza and two other mothers in their case against the State of Montana. Thanks to the work of the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL), I was able to file a legal brief to support families like the Espinozas.

Sadly, the Montana Supreme Court, after the Espinoza case we filed, shut down the entire Big Sky Scholarships program. First, they ruled that it was unconstitutional to include religious schools. They then ruled that the inclusion of religious schools couldn’t be separated from the rest of the scholarship program.

Lawyers for Montana cite the archaic Blaine Amendment in their state constitution which prevents tax dollars from going to schools that are run by a “church, sect or denomination.” Thirty-seven states across the country have Blaine Amendments. Originally, they were written to keep states from funding Catholic schools. This flies in the face of past U.S. Supreme Court rulings saying that laws specifically penalizing religious institutions are unconstitutional.

The highest court in the land now has the opportunity to once-and-for-all put an end to the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments. This will free leaders all across America to pursue positive education reforms. They can do what we did in Wisconsin under then-Gov. Thompson and again during my eight years as governor.

Every child deserves access to a great education. It shouldn’t matter where a student lives, what they look like or what their parents do for a living. America will truly be great again when every child has access to a great education of their choice — at the public, charter, private, choice, virtual or home school that works best for them and their families.

Now more than ever, we need leaders to stand up and remove the barriers for families to make the right choice in education for their children. A positive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court will be a major win in that battle going forward.

• Scott Walker was the 45th governor of Wisconsin. You can contact him at swalker@washingtontimes.com or follow him @ScottWalker.

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