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School Vouchers

Aquinas High School Students and teacher Brooke Manley work Thursday during her physical science class. Out of the 950 students enrolled at Aquinas Catholic Schools 159 use vouchers.

More and more La Crosse area families are taking advantage of a state voucher program to send their children to private schools.

In La Crosse County, the number of students attending private schools

through the program jumped from 170 last year to 307 this year, an 80% increase. That is largely due to two schools, Coulee Christian School and Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran School, opting into the program.

Created in 2013, the vouchers allow families that fall below certain income levels to enroll their children in private schools at no cost.

Instead, tuition is drawn from the local school district’s allotment of state dollars. The district is then allowed to include voucher students in its enrollment headcount, which is used to determine how much funding it receives from the state.

Ted Knutson mug

Knutson

“The advantage of school choice and the Wisconsin school choice program is it’s geared toward families that can’t afford private school but still want another option for their kids,” said Ted Knutson, president of Aquinas Catholic Schools. Aquinas was one of the original 25 private schools or private school systems to join the voucher program. “Most people agree that having choices in how to educate your child is a good thing.”

Statewide, the program has grown to include 250 schools and nearly 10,000 students, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (These numbers exclude schools in Milwaukee and Racine, which have their own voucher programs).

By student count, this school year marks the largest expansion of the program to date.

“We didn’t want to jump in right at the beginning, because we wanted to see how it played out and get a feel for how it was working for other private schools,” said Marliss Katsma, school choice administrator for Coulee Christian in West Salem. In its first year in the program, Coulee Christian has 57 students attending the school through vouchers. That’s more than a third of the student body.

St. Paul’s in Onalaska, also in its first year in the program, has strikingly similar numbers. It has 54 students attending through vouchers, or nearly 30% of its overall enrollment.

“Some of our families were already sending their children here, but they were making a significant financial sacrifice to do it,” Katsma said. “The program has definitely eased that burden, and it’s allowed some students to come in from charter schools or public schools. It’s been a great mix, and it’s been cool to see that we’re getting people whose finances were the only thing keeping them (from enrolling).”

Luther High School in Onalaska was the second La Crosse County school to opt in, accepting its first cohort of 14 voucher students last year. That number climbed to 37 this year, and is expected to keep rising during the next couple years.

Paul Wichmann mug

Wichmann

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“We’re expecting in excess of 20 students each year … as the program becomes more of a focal point for families,” said Paul Wichmann, the school’s principal. “While I can’t speak for all 37 students and their families, I’m confident that, if not for the program, many of the families wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition at Luther.”

Despite its benefits to some families, the program has its share of detractors.

Officials in the public school system have argued that it funnels students and state dollars away from public school districts, forcing them to raise property taxes. The state spent $54 million on the program in 2018-19 and is set to spend $77 million this year.

Gov. Tony Evers, who served as the state superintendent of public schools from 2009 to early this year, has proposed capping the number of available vouchers, stressing the need to balance the public school system and the private school system.

“We have to fully fund our public schools,” Evers said, “and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too.”

Knutson said that, while he would lament a scaling back of the program, “the biggest impact would be on students in the state of Wisconsin.”

School Vouchers

Ocean currents are explained by physical science teacher Brooke Manley Thursday at Aquinas High School. Aquinas was one of the original 25 private school systems in the state to join the voucher program back in 2013.

“In 2019 and moving forward, education is all about choice,” he said. “Western Wisconsin is blessed with a great education system, both private and public. We’re held accountable by having good public schools, and we hope that, by having a really good product ourselves, we’re able to keep public schools sharp, too.”

Luther, meanwhile, has created a sort of rainy day fund in the event that the program is eliminated.

Wichmann said he doesn’t want families to have to choose between their school and their bank account.

“We wouldn’t be able to completely underwrite the cost of tuition, but we’d do everything we could to make it affordable for that specific family,” he said. “Some families are obviously more financially challenged than others.”


Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.

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