Wisconsin is expected to spend almost $245 million on private school vouchers for the 2016-’17 school year, up almost $15 million from a year ago, driven by double-digit enrollment increases in the Racine and statewide programs.
Overall, 33,781 students received vouchers to attend one of the 209 participating private schools in the Milwaukee, Racine and statewide Parental Choice programs, up about 5% over last year.
Milwaukee remains the state’s largest and costliest program with 28,188 students, up almost 2% over last year. But enrollments surged in the other two programs, rising 19% to 2,532 students in Racine and 21.4% to 3,061 elsewhere across the state.
“We’re seeing more and more demand for parental choice programs” outside of Milwaukee, said Jim Bender, president of the advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin. “The more parents learn about the program, the more they want it,” he said.
The Racine program held steady with 19 participating schools. But the statewide program, which started in 2013 with 511 students in 25 private schools, now has the same number of voucher schools as Milwaukee’s decades-old program: 121. Both seats and schools are likely to rise in the coming years as state-mandated enrollment caps rise and eventually roll off, further fueling an ongoing battle over school funding in the state.
While state funding for public schools rose about $122 million this year, revenue caps — the limits on how much a school district can raise in state and local taxes — did not increase, meaning most of the funding increase will go to property tax relief. Many districts saw a reduction in state aid because of changes in the way the state pays for the expanding voucher programs.
Payments to the Racine and statewide programs are deducted from the public school districts where those students live — $7,323 per full-time student in kindergarten through eighth grade, and $7,969 for each high schooler. And Milwaukee Public Schools will see a $52.1 million deduction to pay for its share (25.6%) of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Mary Young of the public schools advocacy group SOS Wauwatosa called the increase in voucher funding “heartbreaking.”
“After 25 years of study there’s no proof that voucher schools outperform public schools. In many cases, they do worse,” she said. “Our state should support great schools that serve all of our kids.”
A 1% limit on the number of students private schools in the statewide program can take from the public schools mitigated the impact of the program on those districts. But that cap increases by 1% in each of the next nine years before rolling off entirely. Thirty districts across the state hit that 1% threshold this year, including the West Allis-West Milwaukee and Burlington Area schools.
Andrew Chromy, finance director for the West Allis-West Milwaukee schools, said it would cost his district almost $662,000.
“This cost is not something that we can continue to sustain,” he said.
Todd Gray, superintendent of the Waukesha Public Schools District, said it lost about 40 students this year, about 30 fewer than last year. It remains below the 1% threshold.
“I think parents recognize that we provide a much broader and higher quality set of educational opportunities for all students as opposed to what the private voucher schools can offer,” he said.
While enrollment in the Milwaukee program saw a slight uptick in enrollment, there were significant swings for some schools. Holy Redeemer Christian Academy lost 200 students, and Blessed Savior Catholic School lost 92, for example, according to the state. Milwaukee Lutheran High School grew by nearly 100 students because of growth at its feeder schools.
“We’ve intentionally opened up some seats because we want to serve those students,” Principal Adam Kirsch said
Bender, of School Choice Wisconsin, attributed the small growth in the Milwaukee program to a 2014 law that makes it harder for new school startups to win state approval, and the difficulty some schools have had acquiring vacant buildings from Milwaukee Public Schools to expand.
“It’s not because demand is down, but because fewer seats are available,” said Bender, who noted that several schools have waiting lists.
“We have not heard from any schools in Milwaukee that demand is down.”