2010 MacIver Wisconsin Educational Choice Census

In the state that pioneered the voucher movement with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1990, more than 25 percent of Wisconsin’s K-12 students now exercise some form of school choice every day. Our first Educational Choice Census indicates that over 220,000 primary and secondary school students learn in locations other than their traditional local public school. Though Wisconsin is nationally recognized for the Milwaukee program, public and private choice options are prevalent across the state –as well as in its largest city.

The John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy’s first edition of their Wisconsin Educational Choice Census documents student populations between traditional and emerging forms of school choice such as private schools, homeschooling, charter schools, and virtual schools. Student counts across these categories were compared against regular public school enrollment as well as prevalent forms of choice within the public school system, including Chapter 220 student transfers, state and city run charter schools, and the public school open enrollment program. The result was an account of more than one million K-12 students, which provides a testament to Wisconsinites’ ongoing commitment to finding the right schools for their children.

The MacIver Educational Choice Census found that many families use different options to choose the path of education that best fits their children. For approximately 130,000 of Wisconsin’s K-12 pupils (12.78%), that choice led them to a private school. Though private schools were the number one alternative to mandated public schools, it was not the only option that housed a significant portion of the state’s student body. Charter schools (3.66% of the overall pupil population), open enrollment and Chapter 220 public school transfers (3.35%), and homeschooling (1.88%) have all emerged as strong options for Wisconsin’s young students.

Total Wisconsin K-12 Population 1,023,655
Number of
% of
Traditional Public Schools 763,300 74.57
Students Exercising Choice 260,355 25.43
Including those in Private Schools 130,800 12.78
and Home-schooled children 19,269 1.88

Though public schooling made up the bulk of Wisconsin’s K-12 population in 2009 (85 percent overall), the families of many of these pupils were still able to exercise choice.  More than 110,000 students – over eight percent of the entire public school body –attended public schools other than their traditional, geographically-assigned, local public school.

Public Charter Schools 37,432 3.66%
-Open Enrollment transfers 28,025 2.74%
-Online Public Charter (Virtual) Schools 3,635 0.36%
-Chapter 220 transfers 34,311 3.35

Over an eight year span, the state’s choice student population,(excluding intra-district transfers and 3-choice public school enrollment) has increased by nearly three percent thanks to modest expansions in charter school legislation and the continued commitment of Wisconsin parents to find the best educational fit for their children. The addition of public online charter schools, which serve over 3,600 students, as well as the increased presence of traditional charter schools across the state, have given families even more educational options; and parents have responded by taking advantage of these programs. Though the state’s overall student population has fallen in the past eight years, the population of students using school choice programs – whether through public or private institutions –has grown.

2009-2010 Total Wisconsin K-12 Population 1,026,606

Wisconsin 2009 Enrollment Total Students % of overall student population
Traditional Public Schools 7763,300 74.57%
Charter Schools 37,432 3.66%
Public Online Charter (Virtual) Schools 3,635 0.36%
Open Enrollment public school transfers* 28,025 2.74%
Chapter 220 public school transfers
-Interdistrict transfers- 3,111 0.30%
Intradistrict transfers 31,200 3.05%
Three-Choice Enrollment* 6,883 0.67%
Private Schools 130,800 12.78%
Homeschooling 19,269 1.88%
Students Exercising Choice 260,355 25.43%
Total Students: 1,023,655 100%
*Estimate based on MPS reporting of students attending neighborhood schools (District Communications Plan May 2008 – Revised 11.25.09)




2000-2001 Total Wisconsin K-12 Population 1,048,194

Number of
% of
Traditional Public Schools 856,739 81.73
Students Exercising Choice 191,455 18.27
-Public Charter Schools 10,070 0.96
-Open Enrollment transfers 7,213 0.69
-Online Public Charter (Virtual) Schools 0 0.00
-Chapter 220 transfers 5,454 0.52
-Private Schools 148,336 14.15
-Homeschooling 20,382 1.94

Thanks to open enrollment policies, inter-district transfers, and the growth of charter and virtual schools, schooling options are no longer just between public and non-public entities.


The MacIver Educational Choice Census indicates that more than 75 percent of Milwaukee’s K-12 population attend a school  other than their traditional public neighborhood school

Thanks to the expanding presence of school options, including the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, charter schools, homeschooling, and magnet/specialty schools, over 87,000 of the city’s students are able to choose an educational option that fits them best. This number far exceeds the Wisconsin’s average, which sees approximately 25% of students taking advantage of public or private school choice programs.

Total K-12 population in City of Milwaukee 115,022

Milwaukee 2009 Enrollment Total Students % of Total Student Population
Traditional Public Schools 27,831 24.20%
Public Charter Schools 17,612 15.31%
Public Online Charter (Virtual) Schools 977 0.85%
Open Enrollment public school transfers 4,562 3.97%
Chapter 220 public school transfers
-Interdistrict Transfers 2,720 2.36%
-Intradistrict Transfers 24,796 21.56%
Three-Choice Enrollment* 6,883 5.98%
Private Schools 28,893 25.12%
Homeschooling 748 0.65%
Students Exercising Choice 87,191 75.80%
*Estimate based on MPS reporting of students attending neighborhood schools (District Communications Plan May 2008 – Revised 11.25.09)

More than 25% of Milwaukee’s K-12 students are able to take advantage of more traditional school choice programs, including private schools and homeschooling. Many of these private school students (19,414) were aided by the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provides vouchers to low-income families to attend private institutions.

Approximately 15.5% of the city’s students take advantage of emerging public-based choice mechanisms, which include charter schools, open enrollment, online charter (virtual) schools, and Chapter 220 inter-district transfers. These students still attend publicly run schools, but use options laid out for them to choose the state-funded institution which fits them the best – whether that school is a charter school in their district, a public school in another county, or even online classes.

Rounding out the total are a group of students who use choice to remain in publicly branded schools in Milwaukee with alternative curricula or structuring, as well as students attending city schools outside of their own geographic areas. Over 20% of the city’s student population participates in Chapter 220 intra-district transfers to shape the paths of their education. This includes magnet and specialty schools, as well as merged attendance area (school pairing) programs.

This number has expanded significantly in recent years as Chapter 220 regulations expanded transfer options in 1995. This change included students attending schools that serve an entire district, increasing the scope of choice students through the addition of more eligible institutions. As a result, many students who would not be thought of as traditional users of school choice programs are included in the census due to their use of intra-district transfer aid and the flow of funding between schools. This accounts for nearly 25,000 MPS students.

Finally, Three Choice Enrollment allows families in Milwaukee to choose the public school that they want their children to attend. Parents are given the opportunity to list their three top institutional choices, and students are placed in schools according to classroom availability. Over 99 percent of participants are selected to attend their preferred schools – which plays a major role in why only 24.2 percent of the city’s elementary students attend their local public schools.

The results showcase the overwhelming presence of options in the city that pioneered modern school choice. More than three out of every four of Milwaukee’s school children chooses every day to attend schools outside of their traditional geographically assigned public classroom. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee has shown that it is the leader in school choice and educational options, regardless of whether they are public or private.


Beyond Milwaukee’s often-discussed school choice program, more and more parents and families are making it clear that educational options are a priority in Wisconsin. Though 21 percent is a significant share of the total student population, it is likely that this share will grow as blossoming programs such as charter schools and open enrollment continue to expand and add more legitimate options for families across the state.  The MacIver Institute is dedicated to tracking this growth annually with the publishing of their Wisconsin Educational Choice Census each summer.

The MacIver Educational Choice Census demonstrates that Wisconsin families want and expect high-quality options – public, private, virtual or charter – no matter where they live. Rather than limit a student’s opportunity to achieve a brighter future with restrictive enrollment caps or arbitrary geographic borders, policymakers should look for ways to promote more freedom and more educational choice across more of the state.

As the MacIver Educational Choice Census indicates, educational choice is increasingly becoming an important part of the Wisconsin way of life.


The MacIver Educational Choice Census was compiled by Education Policy Analyst Christian D’Andrea using figures provided by the State Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families and EdReform.com. Updated 7.19.09