Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 18, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON —The number of students enrolled in Wisconsin’s statewide Parental Choice Program has doubled in less than a decade.
According to the latest statistics from the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), enrollment grew from about 21,000 students in the 2010-11 school year to north of 43,000 this year.
Up until school choice-supportive conservatives took control of the Legislature and the governor’s office in 2011, the so-called voucher program that provides taxpayer funding for lower-income students to attend private schools was concentrated in Milwaukee. The Parental School Choice Program was subsequently expanded to Racine and, ultimately, statewide.
Enrollment in the statewide program outside of Milwaukee climbed 37 percent between 2018-19 and the current school year, with 9,764 students, according to DPI. There are 254 private schools in the statewide program, compared to 213 last year.
“Nobody thought in January 2011 when we started with 21,000 students in the (Milwaukee) program that we would double the size of the program,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, advocate for the parental choice program.
But Bender said that’s just the beginning. Because enrollment numbers in the statewide program have been capped, growth has been artificially slower. Eventually, when enrollment hits 10 percent of a school district’s population, those caps go away.
“We have schools in the program with a great deal of capacity, and we have new schools entering,” Bender said. “While many of Milwaukee’s school choice schools are full and don’t have the physical capacity to get any bigger, we have a lot of schools outstate with room to grow.”
Success has come despite a governor who has threatened to freeze the parental choice program. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who previously served as the state’s DPI superintendent, has been at open war with school choice for years.
The Obama administration was too. A prolonged investigation by then-President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice into the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program turned up nothing, but its political purpose of disruption was clear.
“Thankfully, the law still rules the day,” Bender said. “The things the Obama DOJ tried to do were outside the law, even the DPI said so. In the end, they could not bend the rules enough to fit their political agenda.”
And Bender said the laws written by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, make it difficult for Evers and his bureaucrats to curtail school choice.