The first fruits of Wisconsin’s school choice victory can be replicated
Gus Ramirez softens nothing when diagnosing Milwaukee’s situation.
“Minority kids are getting screwed,” he said, “and they’re getting screwed because the public schools are not delivering adequate education.”
So he’s plunking down about $34 million to change that. Call it the first fruit of this year’s school choice reforms.
The Ramirez Family Foundation already is the fiscal motor behind south-side Milwaukee’s St. Augustine Prep, which has grown from a brownfield in 2014 to about 1,900 students this fall. The foundation announced late last month it would buy the campus of the recently closed Cardinal Stritch University for $24 million and spend another $10 million to renovate the Glendale site into a second, north-side campus of Augustine Prep.
None of it would have happened had not the Legislature and governor agreed in June to increase the per-pupil state aid that parents can take to independent schools in Wisconsin’s school choice program. We know this because Ramirez, who earned a fortune making hydraulic equipment, said so.
“We would not have gone forward had we not had the new funding by the state,” Ramirez told the Milwaukee BizTimes. He waited to make an offer on the Stritch campus, he said, until the new aid formula was approved.
Why? The foundation long had talked of a north-side campus. It had the money. So why wait?
Because, Ramirez told me, of the funding gap.
Thousands of dollars short
Nearly all of Aug Prep’s students come from “disadvantaged” families, with household incomes low enough to qualify for the voucher of state aid that follows a student in the choice program. Last school year, that came to $9,045 per high schooler, $8,399 for elementary-school students, and by law the school cannot charge parents using choice vouchers a penny of tuition.
The Milwaukee Public Schools spent about $18,035 a pupil. While Aug Prep managed to educate a similar population of students for about $12,500 to $13,000 a student, even that more economical figure left thousands per child to be rustled up from donors.
“It would be unsustainable to cover that gap and also to do another school on the north side,” with another 1,500 students to fund-raise for, said Ramirez.
But once the Legislature got Gov. Tony Evers — a longtime opponent of parental choice — to agree to raise choice funding to about $12,000 per high schooler, $9,500 each for younger kids, it meant that if the Ramirez Family Foundation invested millions in providing desperately needed new classrooms, the school could afford to keep them staffed and heated.
Their hundreds of donors will still have to come up with about $2,000 per child, “but that’s a lot more sustainable than $4,000 or $5,000,” said Ramirez.
If he was waiting on the Legislature, so were parents. The school is weeks away from opening an expansion that makes room for another 900 students on its S. 5th St. campus, yet CEO Abby Andrietsch said they still had 500 more applications than they had space. “I think we have parents all across Milwaukee who are hungry for great schools for their kids,” she said.
The state’s own data support this. The number of all Wisconsin children in every kind of school is down about 0.8% a year in the past five years, but enrollment in choice schools across the state is growing by 7.4% a year as parents are drawn by better results, safety and curriculum. Aug Prep just got its second consecutive five-star report card — “significantly exceeds expectations” — from the state. The Milwaukee Public Schools got two stars, and 57% of its students are “below basic” in their ability to read.
More capacity, more learning
“What we do is completely replicable,” said Ramirez, though he concedes traditional district schools are hobbled by being barred from replicating one of Aug Prep’s essentials, a nondenominational approach to Christian faith woven throughout the curriculum. Other choice schools throughout Wisconsin face no such handicap, however, and in all they offer more than 50,000 students statewide a multitude of better ways to learn everything from math to the meaning of human existence.
The Ramirez investment suggests we will see more. The funding gap, especially on the high school level, held back choice and independent charter schools statewide from growing, as schools tapped out their donors just for operating funds. “Because funding was so sparse,” Ramirez said, “choice and charter schools were impeded from growing at the rate they could,” a sentiment echoed by many other school leaders.
Now that such schools are going to be less disadvantaged compared to district schools and to the prevailing cost of educating a kid, donors’ investments can go toward expanding capacity.
Wisconsin families want it. They certainly do, Ramirez said, in Milwaukee, where “there is such a need for great schools that you could build four Aug Prep-sized schools and still not meet the need.”
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.