Wisconsin Student Census: School Choice Participation Sets New Record

One in Four Wisconsin Students Exercise School Choice

October 8, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

The data are in for the latest version of the MacIver Institute’s Student Census, and the number of pupils that exercise school choice in Wisconsin has grown for the second straight year. More than one in four (27 percent) Wisconsin students exercised their right to choose the school that fits them the best in the 2012-2013 school year. In Milwaukee, that number grew to four out of five students thanks to the state’s largest voucher program and a strong system of charter schools.

As a whole, Wisconsin saw growth in its charter school and open enrollment populations, each of which added more than 4,000 students to its ranks in the past year. This included significant growth from the state’s virtual charter schools, where enrollment increased by more than 38 percent according to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) records. These increases were enough to counteract a small decline in students’ families choosing both private schools and the homeschooling sector.

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In Milwaukee, overall school choice participation decreased slightly, but still remained above 80 percent for the second straight school year. The city’s traditional neighborhood public schools saw their enrollment increase by over 300 students while charter school enrollment and Chapter 220 transfers decreased during the same year. This led to a drop of 0.26% of the overall choice population. However, the city’s private schools still were responsible for educating the greatest percentage of students utilizing school choice, enrolling nearly 28 percent of the district’s pupils, or 30,656 students.

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Overall, these data show growth amongst the state’s school choice options even as the state’s overall enrollment declines. Despite recent expansions into voucher programs that create opportunities for students to attend private schools, the state’s private school enrollment figures have actually decreased by six percent over the last four years. Instead, the state’s school choice growth has come from its charter schools and a more-accessible open enrollment program.

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By DPI’s count, the state’s charter schools have grown by more than 17.8 percent over the last four years. The rise in students using open enrollment transfers has been even bigger. Wisconsin saw 59.4 percent more students leave their local schools to attend a different public school in 2012-2013 than the state had in 2009-2010.

Some of these trends have carried over to Milwaukee, though the city has reversed a recent decrease in overall student enrollment in 2012-2013. As the home of the nation’s first modern voucher program, recent expansions to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have played a role in recent increases in private school enrollment, which has gone up by 6.1 percent since 2010. However, open enrollment still leads the way in terms of overall growth after expanding from 4,562 students to 6,575, a 44 percent increase.

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Here’s how enrollment grew or declined by school or enrollment choice type between the 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 school years:

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As expected, open enrollment transfers lead the way in terms of growth on both sides of the ledger. While traditional public schools in different districts are educating these students, they still see their overall population decrease since parents are actively pursuing a choice for their children outside of their neighborhood public school. Chapter 220 transfers are the only category aside from traditional public schools to show enrollment decreases in both Wisconsin and Milwaukee, possibly as a result of an open enrollment program that has become more available to parents and families.

This news shows that parents are taking a greater role than ever before when it comes to directing their children’s education. The growth of charter schools and open enrollment has given Wisconsin’s students more public school options than ever before. Now, the state has added a small, but statewide voucher program on the heels of expansions into Milwaukee and Racine. As a result, parents and families have several choices when it comes to finding the education that best fits their children, regardless of their location or income.