MADISON — The Legislature adopted a statewide expansion of private school vouchers last week, but that doesn’t mean there will be a voucher in every backpack anytime soon.
Participation outside Milwaukee and Racine for all but 13 schools is capped at 500 low-income students next year and 1,000 the following year. If more students apply than there are available slots, only the 25 schools that receive the most applicants can participate. And given some of the state requirements, many private schools in the Madison area have decided not to sign up for the program by the July 26 deadline.
Voucher advocates anticipate the program most likely would expand to communities where private schools have already laid the groundwork to participate. Those areas include Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Kenosha, Sheboygan, Waukesha, Beloit and Madison.
Schools in those areas got a head start when Gov. Scott Walker proposed expanding vouchers to school districts with low-performing schools as measured by a new state report card. But since the Legislature’s budget committee nixed Walker’s proposal and made the program available statewide, private schools in rural areas also have begun to take a closer look.
“We’re a little bit shocked by the amount of demand the rural schools are hearing,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. “It’s really going to be an interesting two-year lesson on what demand for this program truly is across the state.”
In the Madison area, St. James Catholic School, which hosted a sparsely attended voucher informational event in March, is still considering joining, principal Sister Kathleen Loughrin said.
But several of the larger schools, including Abundant Life Christian School, St. Dennis Catholic School and Peace Lutheran, don’t plan to participate next year because they don’t have space, officials with those schools said. Edgewood High School president Mike Elliott said the school won’t participate in the upcoming school year but is examining the possibility for 2014-15.
Changes in rules, funding
Under the voucher program headed to Walker’s desk, students whose families earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level will be able to sign up between Aug. 1-9 with private schools that choose to participate. No more than 1 percent of students from each school district could participate, or about 270 students in Madison.
Only private schools that were in operation on May 1 are eligible, a provision intended to prevent private school operators from opening new schools to take advantage of the voucher program. According to the Department of Public Instruction, there are 824 private schools in the state.
A last-minute change to the program also allows voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine and 13 other private schools that enroll 467 students from those school districts to enroll other students outside the statewide program limits. The 13 schools include Wisconsin Academy in Columbia County and Starr Academy in Waupaca County, as well as schools in Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties.
The change is expected to add 200 students next year and 400 students the following year at a cost of $4.2 million, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Some raised concerns late last week that those grandfathered schools could open satellite locations around the state that wouldn’t be under the enrollment cap. But Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang said it would be up to the Department of Public Instruction to determine whether that would violate the requirement that the school had to be open on May 1.
Altogether the statewide expansion is expected to cost $14.7 million. The bill increases the maximum voucher amount from $6,442 next year to $7,210 in grades K-8 and $7,856 in high school. It ties future increases in the amount to increases in per-pupil funding for public schools.
State Superintendent Tony Evers criticized the last-minute changes and noted the budget now includes $420 million in public funding for private schools, including a $30 million tax deduction for private school tuition.
He also criticized a last-minute provision that requires the state to release all information it maintains on publicly funded private schools at the same time. The provision would make it harder for parents or the media to get information about a school, such as a complaint or disciplinary action against a student, DPI spokesman John Johnson said.
Bender said the provision was intended to prevent DPI from releasing incomplete information about voucher schools.
Questions about participation
Michael Lancaster, superintendent of Madison Diocese schools, said school officials who participated in a recent web-based discussion about the program have raised several questions about the program’s requirements, including an annual financial audit that can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $70,000, a $900 registration fee and how the state’s report card accountability system will apply to voucher schools.
“If you have 10 students on vouchers in your school, are the test scores for those 10 going to be used for a report card when you’ve got 200 or 300 in your school?” Lancaster said.
The Legislature has yet to introduce a bill that would bring private voucher schools into the state’s public school accountability system, though the budget requires those schools to receive report cards a year after linking to the state’s student information system.
Walker said earlier this year he hoped to sign a bill with the details before the budget passed, which won’t happen. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he expects legislators to make progress on a proposal this summer and pass a bill during the next fall or spring session.
Lancaster said many schools were concerned about paying $900 to sign up for the program, only to not make the top 25. Last week the Assembly addressed that concern with a budget amendment that ensures the registration fee would be reimbursed to schools that don’t make the cut.
Some schools in the rural and suburban parts of the diocese don’t expect to have large enough low-income student populations to make it into the top 25, Lancaster said.
‘A wow moment’
But some schools, like St. Joseph Catholic School in Dodgeville, are newly considering their options. As the only private school in Iowa County, St. Joseph educates 166 students from a wide area.
“Obviously prior to the change we assumed it was going to the high-poverty areas and it wouldn’t get out this far,” principal Sharon Wimer said. “At this point we’re investigating the regulations and the rules, which seem quite complicated, to see if we would have an interest.”
One issue schools have to consider is a requirement that voucher students not be required to take religious education courses. Wimer said the appeal of the program was offering a Catholic education to a wider audience, but “with the restrictions they put on it, we have to think about what our philosophy is and what our mission is.”
Rock County Christian Schools in Janesville and Beloit are planning to participate, but only if allowed to continue incorporating Christian teachings in the curriculum, including, for example, presenting both evolution and creationism in science classes, administrator Tim Befus said.
Under state law, a private school can’t require a voucher student to participate in religious activity if a parent submits a written request to excuse the student. Otherwise religious instruction is allowed.
St. John’s Catholic School in Spring Green does not plan to participate next year, principal Karen Marklein said. The 4K-5 school has seen its enrollment decline over the past decade but wants to review the program requirements before jumping in.
“The state voucher system just came out of nowhere,” Marklein said. “It’s kind of a wow moment that’s still sinking in.”