The number of students who use the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to attend Aquinas Catholic Schools continues to rise.

Numbers released Monday by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showed more than 140 students at Aquinas had enrolled in the choice program, up more than 30 percent from 109 students last year. Aquinas has seen growth in the choice program, which provides public funds to private schools for each student enrolled, since the program began in 2013.

“The choice program allows an opportunity for parents to pick the best educational fit for their children,” Aquinas President Ted Knuston said. “It makes Aquinas and other participating private schools available to more families.”

Choice students made up nearly 15 percent of the student population at Aquinas, according to Third-Friday-in-September headcounts the school provided to the state. Of the 32 new students this year, 13 already were enrolled at the private Catholic school system before receiving a voucher, Aquinas President Ted Knutson said.

Aquinas has an operating budget of nearly $8 million and is estimated to receive $1.07 million in funding for the choice students. Children who enrolled in the program before 2015 receive their payment from the state, while those enrolled after receive their funding from the local school district in which they reside.

The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program will provide more than $34 million to the 154 private schools and more than 4,500 students across the state participating in the program this year. Families who meet eligibility and income guidelines can apply for the program, which provides up to $8,176 per student to attend a private school.

The DPI also provided stats on the number of full-time equivalent students residing in each public school district that have enrolled in the choice program. The state counts students in some grades such as 4-year-old kindergarten less than a full FTE, and as a result, Aquinas only had an FTE count of 138½ choice students compared to a headcount of 142.

In La Crosse County, the La Crosse School District had 80 FTE students enrolled in the choice program, with Holmen reporting 21½ students. Onalaska reported 14 FTE, with Bangor and West Salem reporting 10 FTE combined.

There are no Tomah Area School District students enrolled, but school district business manager Greg Gaarder said vouchers could impact future Tomah budgets.

“We have to keep an eye on that because there are significant dollars there,” Gaarder said.

La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson said he was concerned about the continued trend of vouchers going to students who already attend Aquinas. In the first years of the program, nearly all of Aquinas’ enrollees already had attended a private school before receiving the benefit.

Critics have claimed this results in the voucher program being a subsidy for private schools, and lawmakers have attempted to address the issue by restricting applications to the program by private school families to those entering kindergarten and ninth grade.

Competition for students is not new for Wisconsin public schools, Nelson said, as the state’s open-enrollment program has been in place for over a decade. Choice program enrollment is capped at 2 percent of a district’s total membership, and Nelson said he was glad the district has not hit the 135 FTE cap yet, as well as the 66 net students the district received this year through open enrollment.

“We are obviously in an era of expanded choice and choice options,” he said. “Families have much more opportunities than they did in the past.”

Onalaska Luther High School officials have stated plans to apply for the choice program starting in the 2018-19 school year. Luther had an enrollment of 226 students in grades nine through 12 in 2016, according to the DPI.

Knutson said he welcomes the addition of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod high school into the program, as it would provide even more choices for area families. He said western Wisconsin has some of the best schools, both public and private, it is just about making sure families can send their kids to the school that best fits their needs.

“We provide a style of instruction some families prefer,” he said. “Having choice makes it a great opportunity for families to pick the right school for their students. One size does not fit all.”

Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio contributed to his story.

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Nathan Hansen has been the Education Reporter for the Tribune since 2014. Prior to that, he covered education, agriculture and business topics for the Winona Daily News. He is always on the lookout for news tips and can be contacted at 608-791-8234.

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