School Choice Could Help a Rural Community—if Given the Chance

School Choice Could Help a Rural Community—if Given the Chance
AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz

MATTOON, Wis.—At 7 a.m. every morning, Angela Copas’s five-year-old son takes a 45-minute school-bus ride to his public school in Antigo, in rural northern Wisconsin. The long commute is actually an upgrade from last year when he had to leave at 6 a.m. for his one-hour-and-45-minute bus ride. 

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This wasn’t always the case. Prior to 2016 students in the Village of Mattoon would attend the nearby Mattoon Elementary School. But in 2016 Mattoon closed and was absorbed into the larger Unified School District of Antigo. Prior to Mattoon, three other area schools were closed and funneled into Antigo, and this year three more are slated to close.

It devastated Mattoon, a town of about 420 people approximately 90 miles north west of Green Bay. “There’s nothing in Mattoon, except we had our school,” said Mattoon Village Superintendent Zachary Kickhaver.

Many small towns are forced to close schools and consolidate to save money. But in Mattoon, a local non-profit, Christian community group known as Shepherd’s Watch believes it has a solution. The group wants to operate the vacant school building left behind in Mattoon as a community center and eventually turn it into a private school in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP). WPCP is the statewide school voucher program for low-income and middle-class families and is modeled after the successful Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

But the Antigo School District is blocking the acquisition. Apparently, the district prefers that the building sit empty, costing taxpayers around $40,000 a year, rather than permitting it to turn into a private choice school and give families in Mattoon, like the Copas, an educational option closer to home.

Wade Reimer, a local man who grew up and raised his family in the area, formed Shepherd’s Watch. After selling his beef farm, he now wants to use the proceeds to operate the closed Mattoon Elementary School as a private choice school. “Our vision is simple: we’d love to see a Christian school in that community,” said Mr. Reimer.

However, the Antigo School District does not want the building to be used as a private or charter school. After closing Mattoon Elementary, Antigo offered to transfer the empty building to the village, but only with a restrictive covenant stating that it must not be used for any form of K-12 education.  According to a Sept. 27, 2018 article in the Antigo Daily Journal, the Director of Business Services at the Antigo Schools said, “We know that we struggle with declining enrollments.” The article continues, saying that the Director, Tim Prunty, added “that an establishment of any sort of private charter school at Mattoon could further drain students and damage district coffers.”

However, the Village of Mattoon rejected the offer because it was later discovered that Mattoon and the surrounding town of Hutchins have a better claim to ownership of the building than the Antigo School District. Mattoon believes in Mr. Reimer’s vision and wants to sell the building to Shepherd’s Watch. But Antigo will not give up the building. In order to clear up the issue, Mattoon and Hutchins sued the Antigo School District in January. 

While the legal issues pertain to real estate, the larger concerns are the state of rural K-12 education and the need for more school choice. In Wisconsin, around 40% of students in rural or small town school districts are at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, and when socio-economic status is taken into account, in 2017, their performance on state-mandated tests is significantly lower than their peers in the suburbs and equally poor compared to students in urban areas.

The Antigo Unified School District shares these challenges, with nearly one out of every two students considered economically disadvantaged. On last year’s state-mandated tests, student achievement was well below the state average, with only 35.4% of students in the district proficient in ELA and 31.4% proficient in math.

What these districts need is more educational options. The WPCP, established in 2013, already has 7,000 students enrolled and is outperforming public schools on the ACT and on reading test scores. But the program is growing slowly in rural areas. Shawano County, where Mattoon is located has only one private school in the WPCP.

Mr. Reimer’s vision could vastly alter the K-12 landscape in Mattoon. “To change the culture of our community, we have to start with the children,” said Mr. Reimer. “We have to make a positive impact on those kids, and I think that by doing that we can make a positive impact on those families.”

Parents in Mattoon have been trying to bring a school back to their village since 2016 and are excited about the idea of having a local school again. “I’d be first in line to have my kids go there,” said Ms. Copas.

Too many students in rural Wisconsin simply do not have access to a nearby, high-quality K-12 education. Tragically, they are being set up to become tomorrow’s forgotten workers, the next casualties of globalization and technology. Through school choice, Shepherd’s Watch is offering Mattoon and the surrounding area a unique opportunity and one that could make a lasting impression, if only given the chance.

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