Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal was big on money for K-12 public education – to the tune of more than $600 million over 2 years – but small on expanding education options for Wisconsin families. Fortunately the Governor isn’t the only one with a say on this matter. A day after Walker’s budget address, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said lifting the caps on enrollment for the statewide school voucher program, Wisconsin Parental Choice Program was “absolutely” something the Senate Republicans would consider.
This is promising news. The current unfair enrollment caps and income limitations placed on the choice program are arbitrarily hindering growth and shutting the schoolhouse door on Green Bay families looking for education options.
The Green Bay Area Public School District is failing their most vulnerable students—those from economically disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. Only 19.7% of students from low-income families are proficient in English. A staggeringly low 11.4% of African American students are proficient in English. Even among the general student population, proficiency rates in these subjects are only in the low 30s. These problems are not unique to public schools in Green Bay but it is painfully obvious that something else needs to be tried.
But there is a solution. The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) allows eligible families to use a state-funded voucher to send their child to a private school of their choosing. This gives alternatives to the traditional education system that the evidence shows produce better results for students—and we don’t even have to look outside of Wisconsin for the evidence of this. The school choice program in Milwaukee has been quite beneficial in improving the educational outcomes for kids in the City. Academic studies have shown that students in choice schools are more likely to graduate, have higher test scores, and are less likely to become involved in criminal activity. The success has led to rapid growth in the program, with more than 27,000 students enrolled during the previous school year.
These benefits could be realized in Green Bay too. But only if the state legislature unshackles the program from arbitrary rules and caps.
According to state law, in Green Bay, enrollment in the WPCP is limited to 2% of enrollment at the Green Bay Public Schools – or about 211 kids for the upcoming school year. These caps are slated to increase at the glacial pace of 1% each year for the next ten years before finally being removed after that 10th year. This should be expedited to give kids more school choice right now. Furthermore there are income limitations at 185% of the federal poverty line (approximately $45,263 for a family of four) meaning that many low-income and middle class families are left out of the WPCP all together.
Growth is further stunted by artificial limitations on when students can enter the program (Kindergarten, 5th and 9th grade). Such slow expansion stymies the ability for the choice sector to flourish like it has in Milwaukee and other parts of the country. Schools that might open to serve students in the choice program are unable to do so because they simply would not be able to serve a large enough group of students to be viable.
This should be an easy call for Republican legislators. If they want to increase funding for K-12 education, something that has been documented to have little to no effect on education outcomes, they ought to at least consider lifting the caps and income limits on a program that does have a track record of improving outcomes for students. Better yet, increasing enrollment in the WPCP will result in an overall savings to the state, due to the cheaper voucher cost and more money per student at public schools.
What’s not to like?
Will Flanders, PhD, is Research Director at WILL and Collin Roth is a Research Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty