By Laura Sumner Coon — A strong wind whirled snow into the room as the large wooden door to my office opened and a tall young man backed clumsily into the hallway. In a few seconds, his odd entrance was explained. He had lifted a 20-something young woman and her wheelchair up the steep stairs that led to the historic building.
As he turned, I met Yolanda, an African-American mother who braved the harsh March weather to enroll her daughter in Racine’s Parental Private School Choice Program.
While this is the first year that parents interested in enrolling their students in School Choice must do so online, they must present documentation that proves they are qualified. They must live in the Racine Unified School District and make less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level (the same parameters for those who qualify for Badger Care, the state’s health program). Yolanda had come for assistance with the online application and to present her documentation.
I quickly apologized for the physical challenge our office presented to Yolanda and her partner, but she was as quick to respond with: “That is nothing. This is important.”
Yolanda lives in undeniably the roughest part of Racine, Jacato Drive. The four block area of rental, low-income housing is so crime-ridden, Police Chief Art Howell once proposed that the city buy out all of the owners and raze the whole mess. But for someone like Yolanda, who subsists on a very meager Social Security Disability income, Jacato Drive is home.
Because of her circumstances, getting her daughter into a school where she will be safe and have the kind of education that not only will give her a sound academic foundation, but help her grow with loving, strong character is of utmost importance to this young mom.
Yolanda is one of hundreds of parents that I have met in the last two months who are grateful for the opportunity to choose a school they want for their child. One mother wept as she completed the application. When I asked what was wrong, she explained that she never thought she could provide this kind of schooling for her child since she would never have enough money to pay for tuition.
Since February, I have met the parents of 589 students who have applied to five of the Racine schools participating in School Choice. They are all faith-based schools with proven track records of strong academic performance.
Most of the parents I met live in challenging economic circumstances. They have been unemployed, underemployed or physically unable to work. One mother and her daughter were homeless. They were living in a hotel room provided by their church members until they could find a new, affordable place to live.
Most of the parents I met are Latino or African American. They head families that continue to lag behind the earning power of White families by an astounding rate. Last week, the National Urban League released its 2015 State of Black America, noting that the median income for Black households in this country is only 60 percent of that for Whites. Latinos fare just slightly better, making 72 percent.
Education is the key for so many families who wish a better life for their children. For the first time ever, the National Urban League’s report included an indicator for K-12 education. There, too, lies a huge chasm between Black and Latino academic achievement and attainment and those of their White classmates.
Last week, I also attended the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance’s hearing on Gov. Walker’s Proposed biennial budget, which would reduce funding for many educational initiatives, including the Racine School Choice Program. It is astounding to me how funding proposals have fractured educators into two camps. In a state where only 12 percent of Black fourth-graders are reading at grade level and only 60 percent of fourth-graders have achieved reading proficiency, we all should do everything possible to open opportunity for children of every race, ethnicity and economic circumstance to attend a quality school.
It is also astounding to me that some of the people most vehemently opposed to widening options for our children are not the people who are without economic clout to choose. They are not the Yolandas of the state. I have met her, and I’ll do everything I can to assure that parents like her are afforded the chance to raise their children out of poverty.