By: Libby Sobic
National School Choice Week is an opportunity to reflect on school choice policies and their impact on communities, families and students. While enrollment in Wisconsin’s school choice programs are growing, there are still too many communities across the state that lack access to high-quality education.
Kenosha, a large school district in southern Wisconsin with about 19,000 public school students, is an example of a region with few options for families outside of the local district. In fact, less than 400 students in Kenosha attend a private school on a voucher which is far fewer students than its peer district, Racine Unified, where over 3,800 students using a voucher to attend a private school just in the Racine Parental Choice Program. Unfortunately, students in the Kenosha area have significantly less options available to them.
Thankfully Justin Denney is determined to change the status quo for Kenosha students through the founding of Kenosha Christian Academy (KCA).
“In a low-income neighborhood that I worked in as a pastor over the last several years, I realized that the lack of consistency for schools was making it harder to build long-term relationships with families and students,” Denney said. The school will primarily work to serve families that don’t have the financial means to access a private-school education but they also want to build relationships with students and their families. “We want to build a Christian community, emphasizing the goal that they will grow spiritually.”
KCA will open in the fall of 2022 and will start by serving pre-k through third-grade students. KCA plans to grow until they are serving students pre-K through 12th grade. “We believe that the heart of education is to prepare kids for life after graduation,” Denney said. Part of his plan for KCA is to expose students to business and community networks in Kenosha with the goal that after completing their schooling the students will come back to Kenosha and help lead the community.
KCA is Denney and his team’s response to needs they have seen through relationships they have built in Kenosha. After a tumultuous two years for the Kenosha community, Denney and the KCA founders want to be a resource for families in Kenosha’s Uptown neighborhood.
“Families are so excited about the school. Most families didn’t even know that they had an option to send their children to a Christian, private school,” Denney said. “The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program is an opportunity for both our families and the KCA community to serve some of the neediest communities in Kenosha.”
However, this fall KCA almost lost the opportunity to open its doors due to barriers and decisions by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). After nearly a year of state-mandated trainings and paperwork to participate in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP), KCA submitted its financial documents to establish its fiscal requirements under state law August 2021. But months later December 2021, KCA received a letter from DPI which denied their ability to join the WPCP.
“When I looked through the reasons given by DPI, it wasn’t about our viability as an institution. Rather they were small issues, such as a submitted a bank statement overview, rather than a monthly statement,” Denney said. “The issues that DPI flagged could have been easily addressed with a phone call.”
WILL worked with Denney and KCA to fight DPI’s decision. “State law doesn’t require that participating private schools submit a specific type of paperwork from their bank,” said Libby Sobic, Director of Education Policy and attorney. “The law especially didn’t give DPI the authority to prevent a school from participating for failing to meet the DPI’s specifications for paperwork. This was an overreach by DPI that was causing great harm to KCA,”
WILL attorneys put together a comprehensive and strong appeal to DPI that explained how their determination was factually wrong, inconsistent with state law and an example of senseless bureaucratic red tape. Then just a few days later, DPI reversed their decision and allowed KCA to participate in the WPCP this year.
“When we were denied, it was overwhelming to figure out the legal system and our rights,” Denney said. “WILL was so quick to respond and because of their invaluable support, our school is going to be a reality for many families in Kenosha this upcoming fall.”
The future is bright for KCA students. WILL looks forward to seeing KCA students celebrate National School Choice Week next year!
Sobic is the director and legal counsel of education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.