Darrell Campbell Jr.: The power of school choice

National School Choice Week is a time for advocacy to ensure that all children across the country have the opportunity to succeed. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the birthplace of school choice where more than 28,000 students benefit annually from The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) that began in 1990 as the country’s first school choice voucher program. As a result, students in Wisconsin are not stuck in a school system based on their family’s income or zip code—instead, they are afforded every opportunity to succeed at an educational institution that is best for their unique learning needs.

In fact, Wisconsin’s commitment to school choice was reaffirmed recently when the state Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge from the Minocqua Brewing Company SuperPac to overturn the program which it called a “cancer” and a “predatory scheme”, depriving more than 60,000 students in Wisconsin of funding. This refusal represents a major victory for students, parents, and school choice.

I am one of the thousands of students who have benefitted from Wisconsin’s school choice program, and it is far from a “cancer” or “predatory scheme.” I grew up in a part of Milwaukee, where the crime rate is higher than the graduation rate. Where I come from, they say that by the time you are 18, you’ll either be dead or in jail, and any schools in my district are more effective at preparing students for jail than they are at sending them to college. 

While my environment could have been a barrier as it is for so many others my age, school choice provided me an opportunity to reach my potential, and rise beyond the low expectations set for students in my district. 

Instead of being limited to the schools that I was zoned for, I was able to attend HOPE Christian High School through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The teachers I met there were role models and champions for every student who walked through their door, providing inspiration and unwavering belief in all of us as we worked to achieve our full potential. 

With the support system at HOPE, I graduated Co-Valedictorian in the middle of the pandemic. I never would have thought college was an option before HOPE because the schools in my community never emphasized the need for higher education. I now attend Marquette University  and study business administration and educational studies. I’ve been afforded so many opportunities I would not have had otherwise. 

There are so many other students just like me, who were able to thrive instead of just survive their K-12 education thanks to school choice. At MPCP’s inception, seven private schools in the city accepted 341 students. In the last three decades, the program has grown to include more than 125 schools and aids tens of thousands of students each year. It is a tried-and-true case study for the efficacy of school choice programs. When the government provides parents more alternative to failing schools, it breaks the backs of unions and puts pressure on public schools to do better.

It’s vital to the future of Wisconsin’s children that we preserve school choice, and our lawmakers should support education freedom here and for students across America through the Educational Choice for Children Act (ECCA), a federal tax credit scholarship bill that would help up to two million students access a school or education service of their parents’ choice.  

The ECCA would fund scholarships with private donations, not federal money, and donors would receive a federal tax credit. Students could use scholarships for tuition, tutoring to address learning loss, special needs services, education technology, and more. The bill would triple the number of students benefitting from private school choice programs and it would complement the programs already in effect in 31 states, while creating new opportunities in 19 states that lack the option of school choice. The legislation has more than 100 House co-sponsors and more than two dozen Senate co-sponsors.

My story is a testament to the power of school choice and the transformative opportunities it gives to families looking to provide their children with a better future. This week and every week, we must protect and expand the progress and opportunities that have been afforded to thousands of Wisconsin children. I implore lawmakers to showcase their support for school choice by supporting the ECCA so that every child has the opportunity to achieve academic success.

– Campbell Jr. is a fellow with the American Federation for Children.