Wis. Advances Largest Expansion of School Choice Program

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The Joint Finance Committee passed an omnibus school choice motion Thursday night that will expand educational opportunities for students across southeastern Wisconsin. Students across Milwaukee and Racine will have unprecedented access to quality schools thanks to a growing voucher system.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – America’s first modern school choice legislation – moved closer to arguably its largest expansion ever, and definitely the most significant increase since 1996. New regulations will open the existing program to more families and more schools while establishing a companion voucher system 25 miles south in Racine. Several new provisions, including the removing the student cap in Milwaukee, raising the family income limit for qualifying students, and opening the program to schools regardless of location make this one of Wisconsin’s most significant education reforms in 15 years.

The impact of this policy will be substantial. Students in Milwaukee or Racine that meet the new family income requirement – no more than 300% of the Federal poverty limit, or $67,050 for a family of four – will be eligible for a voucher of $6,442 to attend a private school. For families with married couples, this threshold will be reduced by $7,000.

Private schools must first register with the state and adhere to specific standards in order to be eligible to receive these students. Unlike in past years, there is no limit to how many students can receive vouchers to attend the school of their choosing.

While student eligibility will be limited to the residents within Milwaukee and Racine, a new frontier of school eligibility has been reached. Changes adopted by the Finance Committee erase an artificial geographic limitation of the program. As a result, institutions outside of city limits will be eligible to accept voucher students regardless of their location. A parent’s right to pursue the best education for his/her child will no longer be arbitrarily limited by the government because the location of that school

The Racine expansion is a bold step in extending the state’s voucher system, and a potential test program for future developments going forward. The city’s program will start in 2011-2012 with 250 students before expanding to a cap of 500 students in 2012-2013. There will be no limits on student enrollment in the years following that.

Rumored expansions to Green Bay and Kenosha were not included in this version of the budget. However, opportunities still exist to potentially reach these cities as legislation continues.

Another key tenet of these changes to the MPCP will deal with how families are treated within the program. The program will now include a “Once In, Always In” clause that will ensure that students that qualify for the program will be eligible to receive a voucher throughout the course of their education. As a result, parents won’t have to worry about taking a higher-paying job that would bump them over the program’s income limit, since their children will not be at risk of losing their voucher as a result.

These expansions still have to be passed in the Assembly and Senate before becoming law, and will likely be heard at the Capitol in the coming weeks. If the motion passes, it will have a significant impact on the 102,034 public school students in Milwaukee and Racine. For children with no choice but to go to a failing neighborhood school, it means a new opportunity to learn. For families in two of Wisconsin’s largest cities, it means a new source of hope for their future.