By: Jessica Holmberg
Gov. Evers recently signed two bills that increase public school choice in Wisconsin. SB 109 and SB 110 specifically aim to remove barriers to accessing Wisconsin’s largest school choice option, the Open Enrollment Program, by expanding access to virtual schools. The program allows over 65,000 students to access a public school district outside their own without living within the district’s boundaries.
Senate Bill 109, introduced by Senators Ballweg, Testin, and Feyen, further expands access by allowing students to apply to both fully virtual charter schools and fully virtual programs for the 2021-2022 school year. Senate Bill 110, introduced by Senator Ballweg, makes permanent changes to the law by eliminating the three-district application limit for fully virtual charter schools.
Under current law, students may submit applications to up to three public school districts outside their own during the February 1st – April 30th application period. Unfortunately, if a student is denied by all three districts, by law they must wait until the following school year to re-apply. Additionally, current law does not specifically permit students to attend a fully virtual program using open enrollment.
WILL’s recently published open enrollment study, detailing the growth and impact of the program, found that despite a high participation rate in the program, there are still barriers to access. The aforementioned application limit decreases a student’s chance at the education they seek, as students aren’t guaranteed entry to the districts where they apply. By eliminating the district limit for virtual schools, families are now able to apply to three traditional schools as well as an unlimited number of virtual schools. This means that a student who is denied applications at a nonresident district under the three application cap still has alternative virtual learning options. After a tumultuous and difficult year due to COVID-19, providing families with more options is vitally important to ensure that every child can access the best school for their circumstances.
These sentiments were expressed by parents and school leaders at the public hearing for the bills. For example, one school leader detailed stories of expelled/post-incarcerated students denied open enrollment by three districts and how that forced families to seek out and pay for private education, move or wait a full school year to re-apply. The leader further explained the district’s desire to admit one of these students and finding out that it would be illegal to do so.
Without these changes, the open enrollment law arguably prohibited students from accessing all public schools in the state without physically moving into a new district. Considering the learning loss due to the current pandemic, it’s important students have access to the education they need in a timely manner.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have been asked to be very flexible regarding circumstances related to their student’s education. Senate Bills 109 and 110 give families back a little flexibility during a rollercoaster of a year and for years to come.
Bills such as these are small steps to giving all Wisconsin students a quality education. They also serve as an example of how it is possible to overcome partisan differences in service of the needs of Wisconsin students. We’d encourage this sort of mentality to be applied by the governor more broadly.
Holmberg is a policy associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.