2011-2012 Wisconsin Student Census:
More Students Utilize School Choice Here Than Ever Before

Nearly 26 percent of the state’s children attended institutions other than their traditional neighborhood public school in the 2011-2012 academic year. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest district, this figure rose to more than 81 percent of students.


Third Annual Educational Choice Census

Report by Christian D’Andrea, M.P.P.

For the full data breakout in .xls form, follow this link: 2012WICensusLayoutDraft.xlsx

An examination of Wisconsin’s K-12 student population from the last school year shows that more students are utilizing school choice here than ever before. 

In all, more than 262,000 Wisconsin students used some form of school choice. Rather than attending their local classrooms, these pupils chose options like charter schools, virtual charter schools, open enrollment transfers to other public schools, private schools, and homeschooling. Nearly 90,000 of these students came from Milwaukee. In all, there were 1,014,619 K-12 students in Wisconsin.

While the overall enrollment dropped by nine thousand students between the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 school years, the number of students exercising some form of choice in education rose by more than 2,000 pupils. After statewide school choice saw a 1.1 percent decline in 2010-2011, the 2011-2012 numbers rebounded with an increase of 2 percent across all forms of school choice.

That 2010-2011 decline was mostly attributable to a decline in private school students. Wisconsin’s parochial schools saw 5,000 fewer pupils enroll that year. That trend continued when more than 700 fewer students took classes in these schools in 2011-2012. However, enrollment spikes in charter schools, virtual schools, traditional open enrollment, and homeschooling made the past year one of the most successful in terms of school choice participation.

The state’s overall student population decreased, but over 3,000 more students chose charter schools – both regular and virtual – than they had in 2010-2011. This increase was also seen in open enrollment transfers; the process by which families choose public schools other than the one to which they would normally be geographically tied.

Census Charter/Virtual/OE enrollment 2010-2012

40,329 Wisconsin students chose charter programs in 2011-2012. That was up from 37,173 students in the previous year. Just a decade earlier, this figure was barely over 10,000 pupils. The rise was the most dramatic amongst virtual schools. These institutions saw a 23.4 percent increase in enrollment over the past year. Regular charter schools saw 6.7 percent more students in their classrooms as well.

Open enrollment (OE) followed a similar path. 34,498 students used OE transfers to find better schools in 2010-2011. This figure rose to 37,212 in the following year – an increase of 8.15 percent.

Overall private school enrollment dropped this past year, decreasing from 125,372 students to 124,668 pupils. That represented a loss of 0.56 percent of the overall private school population. However, the enrollment count in Milwaukee bucked this trend. Private school enrollment in the state’s largest district rose from 29,024 to 29,765. That was an increase of 2.55 percent.

WI/MKE Private School Enrollment 2011-2012

While this observational data does not tell us why this increase occurred, there is a strong theory behind it. 2011-2012 marked the first year of an expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – the country’s oldest modern voucher system. Legislation removed the student limit from the voucher program while lifting geographic restrictions for schools and raising income limits for families that wished to participate. These changes led to an increase of voucher students in the city.

It appears that this policy change may have played a role in counteracting the steady decline of private school enrollment that is occurring across Wisconsin. However, it should be noted that private school enrollment drops trailed the decrease in students choosing traditional public schools. That population saw a decrease of .85 percent between this year and last year. Private school populations saw a decrease of .56 percent over that same span.

The most significant student population change in Milwaukee actually came from its homeschooled students. After remaining basically static between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, enrollment rose by 14.7 percent in 2011-2012. This was a small amount in the grand scheme of students – an increase of only 110 pupils – but still an interesting figure for Milwaukee. Statewide homeschooling enrollment only rose by 2.8 percent over this same period.

One Decade Later

Wisconsin’s census numbers suggest significant changes in student populations over the past decade. For starters, there were 33,575 fewer pupils enrolled in K-12 schools in 2011-2012 than there were in 2001-2002. This decrease was significant in Milwaukee; the city had 14,276 less students within its limits than it had 10 years earlier.

Despite these drops, the population of students using school choice rose. Part of this was because of the emergence of virtual charter schools, three-choice enrollment, and a greater shift towards open enrollment practices. As a result, some of the enrollment figures from 2001-2002 may be counted differently than they are in 2011-2012, causing some inconsistencies.

Still, the shift in schooling choices is significant. Charter school enrollment, including virtual charter schools, grew by over 300 percent in the past decade, rising from just over 10,000 students to more than 40,000. Conversely, private school enrollment dropped significantly over this span, falling from over 148,000 students to under 125,000.


The state’s other significant increase over the last decade has been observed in open enrollment transfers. Over 30,000 students are taking advantage of a program that allows parents to choose public schools other than the institutions to which a family is geographically tied. The popularity of these transfers has led to an increase of more than 400 percent in the open enrollment category.

Over the past decade, Wisconsin’s private schools have lost nearly 16 percent of their overall population. This is a rate that exceeds the decline of students in neighborhood public schools. There, the attendance rate dropped by 12.2 percent – falling from 856,739 pupils to 752,093.

That trend did not hold true in Wisconsin’s largest district. Over this same period, private school enrollment in Milwaukee increased by nearly 5,000 students. That constituted a jump of nearly 19 percent.

These figures show that Wisconsin’s parents, students, and families are taking advantage of the educational opportunities that have been provided to them. The increased use of programs like open enrollment and charter schools suggest that these parents are likely to use public options during a period where homeschooling and private school enrollment have declined. However, increased private school attendance in Milwaukee may suggest that families there are willing to utilize these school options when backed by a public program.

Wisconsinites are choosing the schools that fit their children best at an increasing rate. For some, it means moving to a charter program. For others, it means a public school that offers more to their children despite being a bit further away from their homes. For many more, it means choosing a private institution that meets their needs. While the debate over which is best for a given child is one without a simple answer, few would disagree with the idea that more options are a good thing for students.

Families in the Badger State certainly seem to agree, and they are taking advantage of the programs that provide the widest variety of options at the greatest rate in Wisconsin history.


All data was compiled from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports. Enrollment counts can be found here: http://dpi.wi.gov