A school choice expert shares his experience at success
By Paul Brennan | Watchdog.org
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — The chance to grab a cup of coffee at his local coffee shop was a welcome break for Terry Brown.
“Right now, I’m on the road almost all the time,” Brown told Watchdog.org.
Brown is the vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization that seeks to ensure an honest debate about school choice by providing accurate information on the impact of school choice on families, communities, and schools.”
“I concentrate on working with schools interested in joining a parental choice program. There’s a lot of boards administering these schools and the congregations that support many of them, as well as school staff and school parents about what the benefits of the program are,” Brown said.
“There is a lot of interest across the state.”
Wisconsin currently has three different parental choice programs, which provide vouchers to families so students can attend private schools. Milwaukee and Racine have choice programs focused on those cities and in 2011 the Legislature created the first statewide choice program.
“There are a lot of questions — many of which are based on myths — about what happens when a school joins a parental choice program,” Brown said.
Brown is particularly well-suited to address those questions. He served for nine years as president of Saint Anthony School prior to joining SCW in 2011.
Saint Anthony, a K-12 Catholic school in Milwaukee, was one of the first religious schools to join the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
The school grew from 450 students to 1500 students while Brown was president.
“It was a major transformation for the school,” Brown recalled, as he sipped his coffee.
It was also a major transformation for Brown.
The Milwaukee-area native had originally pursued a career in business.
In 1995, Brown was working at brokerage house in Milwaukee when the then pastor of Saint Anthony’s parish asked him to help the school.
“And the rest is history,” Brown said.
Brown originally served as a volunteer on the parish corporate board.
“In Milwaukee each parish is a separate corporation,” Brown explained. “We oversaw finances for the school and signed off on its major projects.”
Brown’s first major project was straightening out the bookkeeping.
“There was confusion over such things as what is properly an operating expense and what is properly a capital expense,” Brown said.
Such confusion is common among schools and churches whose governing boards are made up of volunteers.
“Understanding these things requires a skill set not everyone has,” Brown said.
In 1998, religious-affiliated schools were finally eligible to receive voucher students through the MPCP.
With its finances now in order, Saint Anthony decided to join the program, so low-income students who otherwise couldn’t have afforded the tuition would be able to attend the school.
“As they made the transition it became more important for them to have someone who understood finances,” Brown said.
Brown’s role at Saint Anthony expanded. In 2000, he quit his job at the brokerage firm and went to work full time as the parish’s business manager.
“A year after that I was executive director of the school. And a year after that I was president,” Brown said.
Brown oversaw a student body that was not only growing rapidly, but changing as well.
“Before choice, most of our students came from families in the neighborhood — families with a tradition of sending their kids to Catholic school,” Brown said.
“Our new students were also new to Milwaukee. Most of them came from Puerto Rico or were immigrants from Mexico. In 95 percent of those home English wasn’t spoken.”
“The vast majority of the parents didn’t speak English, but they did know they kind of education they wanted for their kids,” Brown said.
At the same time the school was helping many of its students learn English, Brown was also determined to raise the level of education for all students.
“We worked truly hard,” Brown said. “We increased the amount of time spent on reading and math, even though that required an extension of the school day to eight hours. That was tough, but it was successful.”
Brown’s experiences at Saint Anthony means he can speak with personal authority to school leaders considering joining a choice program.
“Having someone with first-hand, in-the-weeds knowledge has made our job of supporting schools and working on the administration of the program much easier,”
SCW President Jim Bender told Watchdog.org.
“Parents and schools are most worried about two things,” Brown said. “They are concerned about whether they’ll be able to maintain their school’s culture after they welcome new students. There’s no reason they can’t.”
“They are also worried about government overreach. They are worried the state may end up controlling the curriculum or the hiring and firing practices. There’s no evidence anything like that is going to happen,” Brown said.
“And if it is does, schools can leave the program easily enough.”
Asked about the importance of school choice, Brown paused to think.
“I remember a cook who worked in the school kitchen. She was an immigrant from Mexico and she hadn’t had the opportunity to go to high school. Her son came to us, not speaking any English. After three years at Saint Anthony, he went off to a different high school, where he excelled. He became a star scholar and an athlete. He’s in college now and doing very well.”
“We had a lot of parents at Saint Anthony who didn’t have a high school education themselves, but they knew the wanting to send their children to a Catholic school, with discipline and high expectations,” Brown said.
“When you see the hope in a parent’s eyes once they realized they can decide where their child goes to school, you understand the importance of choice.”