By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Democrats and the Wisconsin news media pounced on a report from the Department of Public Instruction that showed 73 percent of students taking part in the first year of the statewide school choice-program were already enrolled in private schools last year. About 21 percent of students came from public schools.
“The Republican voucher scheme to expand statewide ended up overwhelmingly subsidizing students who were not in public schools,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement.
“Nearly 80 percent of voucher recipients didn’t attend a Wisconsin public school last year, the AP headline says.
Here’s what they didn’t tell you: The numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The timeline from when the private schools received word that they could participate in the voucher program to the when parents had to submit applications was both abbreviated and late in the summer, just weeks before the beginning of the new school year.
That timeline was so tight that DPI projected that some students may not find out whether they would receive vouchers until after school started.
Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, told Wisconsin Reporter in August that a more accurate picture of the demand for the program will surface next year.
“(The enrollment period) was so abbreviated. Schools were informed July 26 that they can accept applications. Kids are already enrolled in public school for the next year,” he said. “Even so, applications from public school kids alone (503 out of 2,069) exceeded the cap.”
At that time, DPI projected 67 percent of kids in the statewide voucher program would come from private schools.
Gov. Scott Walker signed the budget, expanding the voucher program, July 1. Private schools wanting to participate in the program then had to do training and complete paperwork with DPI. Parents had only between Aug. 1 and Aug. 9 to apply for the opportunity to enroll children in the statewide voucher program.
Many administrators at the private schools we spoke with said they relied on their built-in networks of parents whose children already attend private school and the congregations of churches affiliated with the schools.
“We sent information to all the families that are already here,” Karen Konop, director of admissions at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay, previously told Wisconsin Reporter. “We’ve sent letters out to everybody, we advertised on the marquee. A lot of it is word of mouth.”
“I’m hoping that all of the parents at my school that are eligible start applying,” Tia Sierra, principal of Lighthouse Christian School in Madison, said in a previous interview. “I’ve been letting our church congregation know, using email and Facebook, and letting other churches know so that other parents will be able to apply.”
Sierra said most of the families enrolled at Lighthouse Christian were low-income and would be eligible for vouchers. “It’s a perfect program for us,” she said.
“The primary reason we applied for the program was to give families in the area a chance where financial means might be a deterrent,” said Ray DuBois, president of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic System in Appleton. “We know that a significant portion, probably 50 percent of the applicants, currently don’t attend a school in our system at this time, but are applying because of financial restraints.”
St. Francis Xavier received 193 applications for vouchers.
Private schools will host open houses and school fairs in February to recruit for the next school year. According to Bender, that’s the next meaningful gauge of demand for vouchers in Wisconsin. Private schools’ main enrollment periods are in February, March and April, he said.
Still, the Legislature has work to do if it wants to ensure that more public school students receive vouchers.
Before taking off for the summer, Republicans said the intent of the law was to give students in public schools preference for vouchers, and they would look to fix the language.
That hasn’t yet happened. Speaker Robin Vos, R – Burlington, and Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R -Juneau, did not return requests for comment Thursday.
“I haven’t spoken to leadership about it,” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R – Brookfield, “But I am optimistic we would be looking for additional solutions to that issue.”
Contact reporter Ryan Ekvall at [email protected] or on Twitter @Nockian