Proof Positive

Proof Positive:
School Choice Changes Lives

By Lisa Knepper

This just in: school choice works.

The latest evidence arrived in September when School Choice Wisconsin published a study by education researcher Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy. Greene found that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program graduate at much higher rates—by one measure, nearly twice the rate—than students in Milwaukee’s public high schools. Choice students even fared better than their peers at Milwaukee’s six academically selective public high schools. (Read the study at

Given the vital importance of a meaningful high school diploma to every young person’s life prospects and the dismal graduation rates of minorities in urban public schools this is truly outstanding news.
Here’s how some beneficiaries of that good news—our clients in the legal battle to defend school choice in Milwaukee—describe what choice means to them.

Grandmother on an Educational Mission

Zakiya Courtney, top center, is surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Zakiya Courtney sent her first two

children to Milwaukee Public Schools—then vowed never to do it again. So she found a way to put her younger children in Urban Day School, a private school.

Urban Day ignited in Zakiya a passion for urban education reform. In the 1990s, she headed Parents for School Choice to advocate for equal educational opportunities, and today she’s pursuing a doctorate in education at Cardinal Stritch University.

At her urging, every one of her grandchildren has participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Seven are in the program now, and Zakiya advises their educational choices and volunteers at their schools.

Her oldest grandson, Jelani Kazmende, was in the first class of voucher students in 1990 at Urban Day. He is now a junior at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.

Zakiya’s grandchildren love their schools, and she stresses the power in “being able to choose and not being stuck with whatever the public schools offer.” Kurtis Blakes attended Agape Center of Academic Excellence on a voucher through the 8th grade. Now a freshman at a charter school, he returns to Agape to visit every chance he gets.

Dad Makes “All the Right Choices”

Tony Higgins with his daughter, Tanya.

Single father Tony Higgins was also inspired by school choice. His daughter, Chironda, began the voucher program in 1994 at Urban Day, later graduating from St. Joan Antida High School.

Chironda is now a junior at University of Wisconsin-Parkside deciding between a degree in business or education. (Tony gives his daughters two choices: “go to college and like it, or go to college and don’t like it.”) After working at M&I Bank, she now works part time at a voucher school and volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club.

His other daughter, Tanya, also attended Urban Day on a voucher, then Marva Collins Preparatory School and now CEO Leadership Academy, a new school founded by eight African-American Milwaukee churches. But she’s no longer on a voucher; now Tony can afford the tuition.

Inspired by his daughters, Tony finished college and is pursing a master’s degree. He works at the Technical Assistance & Leadership Center (TALC New Vision), a non-profit that helps community leaders create new small public and private high schools—including CEO Leadership Academy.

“Choice has been a blessing,” Tony says. “I see what can happen, and we’ve made great strides in Milwaukee, but a lot of kids are still stuck in bad schools. I want more kids to enjoy the opportunities my daughters have had.”

Looking back, Chironda teases her dad: “I don’t know how this old guy made all the right choices, but he did.”

For Mom, a “Passport out of Poverty”

Pilar Gomez, helps her son, Tomás, get a good education through the Milwaukee voucher program.

All three of Pilar Gomez’s children have enjoyed school choice. Andrés began in the 3rd grade at St. Lawrence Catholic School (now Prince of Peace). The private school caught what public schools had missed, diagnosing Andrés with attention deficit disorder. Thanks to professional help and hard work, he is on the honor roll at Loyola Academy, a public high school, and will attend Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Bianca has been in the program since 1st grade, first at St. Lawrence. Now she is an honors student at Pius XI High School, planning to attend the University of Wisconsin and become a lawyer. Tomás, a 6th grader, has attended Prince of Peace since kindergarten. An avid Iron Chef fan, he intends to study Culinary Arts at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“If low-income children are given a solid, quality education it’s like having a validated passport out of poverty,” says Pilar. “However, we live in a society where that’s not a reality for every child. My children have been blessed to be a part of a program that empowers parents to choose a school that best suits the needs of their children.”

Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.

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