MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Six new religious private schools will be added to Wisconsin's statewide voucher program starting next year, the state Department of Public Instruction reported Tuesday.
More than 3,400 students have applied to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private and religious schools in the second year of the statewide program, more than triple the enrollment cap of 1,000, DPI said.
The six new schools added to the program next year are: Fox Valley Lutheran High School (Appleton), St. Paul Lutheran School (Bonduel), St. Paul Lutheran School (Sheboygan), Trinity Lutheran School (Sheboygan), Twin City Catholic Education System (Menasha/Neenah), and Winnebago Lutheran Academy (Fond du Lac).
Of the eligible student applicants, 75 percent are already paying to attend private school. If they are among those randomly selected to get the voucher, taxpayers will pay for their private school education.
This year, the first for the statewide voucher program, nearly 80 percent of the 500 students admitted did not come from a public school.
The voucher program is touted by its supporters as a way to help students escape poorly performing public schools. Opponents, primarily Democrats and public school advocates, say the program is not accountable to taxpayers and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.
Critics point to the low percentage of applicants coming from public schools as evidence that the program is a public tax-dollar giveaway to private schools to the detriment of public schools.
But supporters focus on the number of applicants exceeding slots as evidence that the program is popular and should grow.
"The caps on the program are denying students in all types of schools - private and public from getting access," said Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin.
The voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990, the first city in the country to offer the taxpayer subsidies to help poor children escape struggling schools. Since 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have expanded it.
Walker and Republicans created a voucher-program in Racine, eliminated enrollment caps there and in Milwaukee, raised income limits to allow middle-class students to participate, and created the statewide program.
The first 25 schools that were in the program this year keep their 500 vouchers. Twenty-six schools, including the six new ones, with the most applicants will divide up 500 more slots for next year. Each school will be guaranteed 10 vouchers each, with the remaining 250 students picked at random by DPI.
Parents will be notified later this month, DPI said.
Of the total applicants, 2,834 were for the 31 schools that will be in the program next year. That includes 482 students who received vouchers this year.
All applicants in the statewide program, regardless of attending public or private schools, must meet income requirements. A single parent with three children can earn up to $44,177 per year. For a married couple with two children, the cut-off is $51,177 annually.
The vouchers, used to defray the costs of a private school education, are $7,210 for students through grade 8 and $7,856 for high school students.
The statewide voucher program cost about $3.2 million this school year and that will grow to about $7.3 million next year.