WUWM’s Emily Files reports on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visit to Waukesha.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was in Waukesha Thursday to talk with families who are unhappy with virtual learning and have switched their children to different schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
School choice – or providing alternatives to traditional public schools – is a central part of DeVos’ platform. At the Waukesha roundtable event, DeVos said the pandemic has made the case for school choice even stronger.
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“More than ever, parents have a keen understanding of what their children need to learn, how they learn,” DeVos said. “They’ve been able to observe them, observe what’s gone on in a distance learning environment, how flexible or inflexible their schools have been. And frankly, many folks have been very disappointed.”
Trump and DeVos want schools to fully reopen after closing at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March. But this fall, schools have made a patchwork of decisions about whether to hold in-person instruction. Private schools have been more likely to bring students back to buildings than public schools.
A parent at the roundtable, Amy Wiczek, said she moved one of her children from Whitnall public schools to a private school, Catholic Memorial, in Waukesha. Another one of her children is still in virtual school.
“I need school to be school again,” Wiczek said. “I need my kids to be with their friends, touch people, be able to sing in a choir without a mask on, participate in sports. My kids’ lives are – they can’t get this time back.”
Ingrid Kowieski told DeVos that she moved her two children from Oconomowoc public schools to St. Paul Lutheran because they were struggling emotionally with virtual learning.
“They’re both very outgoing, social people and struggled with being isolated,” Kowieski said. “They needed to be in front of teachers, in front of their friends.”
DeVos advocates for programs that use taxpayer funding for private schools. Wisconsin is home to some of the oldest such programs in the country. But the programs have income limits – which some parents at the Waukesha event oppose.
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Melissa Famighetti and Matt Groth said they transferred their kids from Mequon public schools to Trinity Lutheran.
“For us, one thing that has disappointed us are those income limits,” Famighetti said. “And we would like to see the program open up to everyone. Lower income families should not be denied access to private schools, the same way higher income families should not have to pay twice.”
The roundtable did not include any parents who favored virtual learning over in-person learning during the pandemic. There was also no mention of Wisconsin’s escalating coronavirus outbreak.
Some schools have either been forced to switch to virtual instruction or decided to continue with it because of the surging COVID-19 case numbers in parts of the state.
Teachers unions from Milwaukee, Madison, and other large districts are calling for a statewide order to stop in-person learning until the coronavirus is under control.
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