Wisconsin’s voucher program and what’s next

File photo (MGN Online/Freeport School District)
File photo (MGN Online/Freeport School District)

GREEN BAY - It's School Choice Week, a time where private schools commonly hold info sessions for parents looking to enroll students.

The biggest change to School Choice in Wisconsin this past year has been the statewide private school voucher system. So how's the program going, and what's next?

GRACE Catholic schools and Notre Dame Academy reached out to parents Thursday night.

Giving folks like Bob Heier a chance to hear about the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, also known as school vouchers.

“He's currently going to a private school at this time so but the program's out there for those of us who are in need of some help to get him to a private school,” said Bob Heier of Green Bay. “It's a couple thousand a year for tuition so it would save a little bit of money. You know, every things helps.”

Heier said he applied for his second grader last year. His son wasn't selected.

Five hundred and twelve students across the state are receiving vouchers to attend private schools this school year. The most going to Northeast Wisconsin. The Green Bay and Appleton areas each had 53.

The first year of the statewide program wasn't without problems, particularly timing. The statewide lottery happened on August 19, the first day of school for Notre Dame Academy. So we wanted to know, did this affect the new students transferring in?

“Nine of those ten vouchers were our students so they were in the building already so the other one we brought her in and we brought her up to speed as quickly as we could with a lot of support from faculty,” said Karen Konop, Notre Dame Academy.

Though the Xavier school system in Appleton had more new students transfer in on vouchers.

We wanted to talk to some of the voucher students ourselves, but they declined to go on camera. School officials say they've blended in quite well in the classroom, and they don't want them to be singled out.

“They didn't come in with a big v on their forehead. They just came in as a new student,” said Ray Dubois, Xavier school system.

But those students are lower-income and receive taxpayer money.

The state's paying schools $3.2 million this school year for the 500 voucher students. That's roughly $6,000 per child.

Sixty-seven percent of students who applied for vouchers last year already attended a private school. 33 percent had not.

However parents had a narrow window to apply last time. Just from August 1 through August 9 for this school year's program.

Parents will now have from February 1 through April 21 to apply for vouchers for next school year.

Administrators hope extra time and info sessions will change the applicant pool.

“I think there will be a larger increase in the applications coming from students and families in the public school system,” said Konop.

Total student enrollment is also going up to 1.000 across the state.

How will schools get to that number? Let's do some voucher math.

Schools currently in the program will keep their enrollment allotments. That accounts for the first 500.

Then, if more than 1,000 students apply, the top 25 schools of interest from that group will receive 10 students each. That brings the total of students up to 750.

The remaining 250 spots for vouchers will be determined through a lottery system.

However, children applying for vouchers who already have siblings attending a voucher school will be given preference.

Parents hope expanded enrollment will bring them luck.

“I'm hoping he gets in this year, yes,” said Heier.

Again, enrollment for the voucher program begins Saturday. Parents can apply online through the Department of Public Instruction.