Blog Post: School Choice 101

It’s School Choice Week! Across the nation, people are celebrating the notion that families ought to be able to choose the educational options that work best for them regardless of how much money they make. Here in Wisconsin, we have a lot to be proud of, but also a long way to go to ensure that educational options are available for everyone. Here, we will describe some of the major educational options available in Wisconsin, and what still needs to be done to make them better.  

Private School Choice 

Wisconsin is the home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program. There are four main programs to consider.  

  • Milwaukee Parental Choice Program Created (MPCP): Created in 1990 by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, the MPCP has grown to serve more than 27,000 students.  
  • The Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP): The RPCP is open to students in the Racine Unified School District. 3,935 students participated during the most recent school year.  
  • Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP):  Under Governor Walker, the WPCP created private school choice for low-income families across the state.  The WPCP has grown rapidly, from just 499 participating students in its first year, 2013, to more than 16,000 students today.  
  • Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP): this program provides a larger voucher to ensure that private schools can meet the needs of students with disabilities. 2,217 students participated during the most recent school year.  

Challenges for Private School Choice 

Despite strong evidence from both WILL and others on the positive academic and non-academic impacts of these schools, many families in the state still don’t have access to them. The income limit on the statewide program is only 220% of the federal poverty limit, meaning a family of four making $60,000 per year is already considered too wealthy.  Policymakers should consider eliminating these income limits so all families can realize the benefits of private schooling.  A second key problem is that funding levels are insufficient, particularly in a time of massive inflation.  Particularly at the high school level, schools have found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet without massive fundraising.  One key recent example of this is HOPE Christian High School, which closed it’s doors in the summer of 2022 due to funding shortages and a related inability to compete for teachers in a tight market.  

Charter Schools 

Charter schools are public schools that enjoy freedom from some school district rules. There are three main types of charter schools in Wisconsin. Nearly 50,000 students in Wisconsin take advantage of some form of charter school, and they have been found to have academic benefits for students that equal or exceed private school choice in many instances. A description of each type of charter is found below.  

  • Instrumentality Charters: Instrumentality charters are often referred to as “charters in name only.” While they are ostensibly different from traditional public schools, they still have unionized teachers and are often run similarly to traditional public schools.  
  • Non-Instrumentality Charters: While authorized by school districts, non-instrumentality charters have greater freedom from district policies and generally have non-unionized teaching staff.  
  • Independent Charters: These charter schools are authorized by entities other than local school districts, such as Native American Tribes, the City of Milwaukee, and the UW System. They operate independently from school districts. About 10,672 of Wisconsin’s total charter population are enrolled in these schools.  

Challenges for Charter Schools 

Unfortunately for charters, what was once an educational option that enjoyed broad, bipartisan support has become anathema to many on the left. Despite the positive job they do for kids, some charter authorizers have become unfriendly to authorizing new schools.  Recently, the head of the Office of Educational Opportunity was replaced, causing concern among charter advocates for the future of this authorizer as a viable option for schools.  Policymakers should strive to make certain we have sufficient authorizers for public education entrepreneurs who want to start their own school.  Authorizers must be insulated from the political pressure of opponents so that charters in Wisconsin remain a stable, viable alternative to traditional public schools.  

 Open Enrollment 

While often not thought of under the umbrella of “school choice,” public school open enrollment is actually the state’s largest school choice program. Open enrollment allows students to move from one school district to another with the agreement of the receiving district.   According to the most recent annual report from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, more than 71,000 students transferred between school districts for the 2021-22 school year.  

Challenges for Open Enrollment 

Open enrollment in Wisconsin remains a model for the rest of the nation, but there are still improvements to be made.  For example, for non-special needs students, only $8,161 was transferred to the receiving district.  This means that the average school district retained more than $6,400 for each transferring student.   In keeping with WILL’s general principle that the money should follow the student, we think that more of that money should move to the new district with the transferring student to incentivize the donor district to improve.  

Making Wisconsin a Model for School Choice Again 

Twenty years ago, states around the nation looked to Wisconsin for the best practices in implementing school choice programs in their state.  While there are still many bright spots in Wisconsin worthy of celebration, there is little doubt that states like Arizona and Florida have become the centers of innovation while Wisconsin has remained somewhat static.  As we celebrate School Choice Week around the nation, we hope that Wisconsin can one day return to the forefront of giving families the opportunity to choose the schools that work best for them.  

Will Flanders, PHD

Will Flanders, PHD

Research Director

Flanders@will-law.org

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