RACINE — Education, its funding, and how that funding should be doled out are hotly debated subjects in Wisconsin. Parents want their children to get the best education possible, but they do not always agree on what that means.

Some are thankful for publicly funded vouchers to pay for their children to attend private schools, something they might not be able to afford otherwise. Others say that tax dollars should stay in public institutions. Some parents say that despite a questionable reputation, their children have had good experiences at Racine Unified schools.

When The Journal Times asked local parents to weigh in, motivations to send children to private schools included small class sizes, better discipline, religious teachings and safety concerns at public schools. Others said the benefits of public schools included special education and language-immersion programs as well as exposure to real-world issues.

In total, The Journal Times communicated via email, phone call and in person with 11 parents and grandparents who shared their experiences with the local public and private school systems.

Craig Hansen of Racine said that as his older daughters approached kindergarten age, he and his wife, Brittany, worried about where to send their children to school.

“We researched online, talked to neighbors, and visited schools,” he said via email. “We heard many stories of unruly and violent students.”

Safety was one of the multiple factors in their decision not to send their children to a Racine Unified school.

His daughters, now 10 and 11, have attended Renaissance School in Racine through the state’s voucher program since kindergarten. Hansen values not only the education his daughters are getting, but the other life skills they learn at school.

“They teach about respect for others, respect for yourself, how to carry yourself, morals, ethics, and caring about others, as well as giving back to the community,” Hansen said.

He believes that vouchers should be available to parents to provide them the opportunity to chose where to send their children to school.

“Renaissance may not have the newest facilities and the state-of-the-art equipment that other schools may have,” Hansen said. “What they do have is heart. The effort and love for education and the students is there. Not just from the teachers and staff, but from the parents who made the choice to enroll their children there.”

Special education

Cassandra Ryan said that she initially wanted to send her children to a private school through the voucher program, but learned that some of the schools she was looking at didn’t offer the special-education services her children need. They now attend Racine Unified schools.

Although Ryan has had her fair share of issues with Racine Unified, she’s feeling much better about the education they’re receiving today. Ryan’s daughter was racking up suspensions at Goodland Elementary, so Ryan enrolled her at Bull Fine Arts through Unified’s school choice option. She began attending there in fall 2017 and this year is at Gilmore, the new home of Fine Arts. Ryan said her daughter made a complete turnaround at Fine Arts, with no suspensions or phone calls about behavior, as well as better grades.

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“I do have to say Gilmore Fine Arts is amazing,” Ryan said.

She said the parent involvement at Gilmore makes a big difference. She encourages other public-school parents to advocate for their children and to make sure they’re at the school that’s best for them. Her son had been moved through a string of Unified schools but now attends SC Johnson. Ryan called the teacher who deals with his and other students’ behaviors “amazing.”

“I’ll have to say not all RUSD schools are horrible as people make them seem like,” Ryan said. “It takes parents to come together and work with the school, teacher and your child.”

Thankful for vouchers

Caroline Gabellini said she would not have been able to send her son to Our Lady of Grace Academy, one of Siena Catholic Schools’ K-8 schools, without the help of the voucher program. Now in fourth grade, he’s been attending the school since 4K.

“I had my heart set on private school,” she said.

She likes the small class sizes, especially because it gives teachers more time to work with students individually. She also likes that he attends Mass on Wednesdays.

“I think it’s the best thing ever,” she said of the voucher program.

She added that she wants a good future for her son and to put him on the right path.

Dual language

Even though Gifford is her child’s boundary school, Kim Anderson sends her child to Wadewitz because of its dual language program. Her 6-year-old daughter isn’t a native Spanish speaker, but Anderson believes that being bilingual will be advantageous to her in the future.

Anderson said some of her neighbors question her decision, as Gifford has a reputation as one of Unified’s best schools, and some of them moved there just so their kids could attend. Anderson said her daughter felt a little out of place starting in the dual-language program when she was 4, as one of the few students who weren’t native Spanish speakers, but she now feels like it’s a superpower.

“She loves to teach Spanish to other kids,” Anderson said.

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Caitlin Sievers covers cops, crime and the west-end communities. She's a lover of cats, dance and Harry Potter. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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