Back to School: Statewide voucher program expands in 2nd year

Schools like St. Paul Lutheran in Bonduel are new to the statewide private school voucher system in the 2014-15 school year.
Schools like St. Paul Lutheran in Bonduel are new to the statewide private school voucher system in the 2014-15 school year.

GREEN BAY - The Wisconsin statewide private school voucher program will begin its second year with an expansion. That means twice as many students will receive taxpayer money to attend private school.

As its doors open to students next week, St. Paul Lutheran School in Bonduel will be one of the new participants to the statewide voucher program.

This fall, 1,000 private school students will head to class for free.

“It's a great opportunity,” said Gerald Schmidt.

Schmidt is the principal at St. Paul Lutheran. Sixteen students will receive vouchers to attend his school.

“It relieves the stress, I would think, off the parents, having to come up with the tuition dollars,” said Schmidt.

Tuition at St. Paul Lutheran ranges from $650 for church members, to a maximum $2100 per child for non-members.

The Department of Public Instruction says it pays schools up to $7210 for grade school vouchers. High school vouchers are paid up to $7856. However, the vouchers don't just cover tuition. Vouchers also cover the operational costs per child.

Both the DPI and St. Paul Lutheran say right now, they do not know the exact amount of money individual schools will be paid.

The statewide voucher program will cost the state at least $7.195 million in the 2014-15 school year. That’s roughly double than the previous year, because the number of enrollment spots has increased.

So, how are the vouchers given out?

Schools that participated in the statewide program last year keep their 500 vouchers. This year, students applied online for the new 500 vouchers. The more applications submitted for a school, the greater chance the school has to be selected. The 25 schools with the most applications then received 10 vouchers each. The remaining 250 statewide vouchers were decided by lottery.

To qualify for a voucher all students must meet a low income requirement. Schmidt says the children receiving vouchers to attend his school this year were already on St. Paul Lutheran School’s free and reduced lunch list.

"I pretty much went right down the list and contacted every parent, asked them to consider applying,” said Schmidt.

The DPI administers the voucher program. But the head of the DPI, State Superintendent Tony Evers, is one of the program's critics. He says the voucher program doesn't do what it was intended to: provide low-income public school children a chance to attend private school.

“Essentially the number of kids who are being helped with vouchers are the same ones that are already in those schools. So essentially, we're subsidizing kids and parents and schools that were already there,” said Evers.

Statewide, two-thirds of students who applied for vouchers already attended private school.

Pilgrim Lutheran School in Green Bay has roughly the same enrollment as St Paul Lutheran in Bonduel. It also had students apply for the private school voucher program. For the second year in a row, pilgrim Lutheran school did not have enough applicants to receive vouchers. The principal says it could be because not enough students qualify.

“I would say it's the demographics, the economics of the two communities, and maybe of our student body as well,” said Ken Longmire, the principal of Pilgrim Lutheran.

Longmire says half of the 26 students who applied for vouchers do not currently attend Pilgrim Lutheran.

That's different from St. Paul Lutheran in Bonduel, which only had current students applying for vouchers. St. Paul Lutheran's principal says that could change in the future.

“I think it may, in time, bring more students in from the public schools. But there are a lot of good public school programs around, too,” said Schmidt.

Evers says despite his opposition to the statewide voucher program, he doesn't expect the legislature to do away with it.

“It seems to be a freight train going down a track on this issue. So, I don't have great hope that there will be a public policy debate about it. But, the fact of the matter is, it does impact public schools,” said Evers. “With the further expansion, there's a limited box of dollars here that goes to education and if some of that is not going to public schools that's an issue.”

Both private schools and the DPI say the long-term future of the voucher program hinges on the next state budget. The budget will be introduced next year.