MILWAUKEE — Enrollment in the nation’s oldest and longest-running school voucher program jumped 10% over the last year, according to a new report issued by the Wisconsin-based Public Policy Forum. A total of 23,198 students in Milwaukee County now utilize vouchers, the report noted. The vouchers provide each student up to $6,442 towards private school tuition.
The recent increase in voucher utilization comes after restrictions on the program were eased in three ways. First, state lawmakers voted last year to lift the overall cap on vouchers issued. The law governing the program, enacted in 1990, previously stipulated that no more than 15% of the district’s students could receive a voucher. Over the past decade, voucher participation started to approach – though never exceeded – that 15% cap.
Second, lawmakers voted to adjust the program’s household income rules. Now families that earn up to 300% over the poverty line are eligible to participate. That new threshold would include a family of four earning as much as $67,000.
Finally, the program was broadened to include all of Milwaukee County as well as the City of Racine. Previously, only students within Milwaukee’s city limits qualified to receive a voucher. According to U.S. Census data, nearly 353,000 people live in Milwaukee County but not Milwaukee proper. Racine boasts a population of roughly 79,000.
Nationally, polling on vouchers yields mixed data. Since most respondents lack first-hand experience with vouchers, the results depend on how questions are phrased. A 2011 Gallup survey found that just a third of respondents favored “allowing students or parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.”
In places that already have vouchers, however, residents seems to like them. A Milwaukee poll found that 59% of residents favored vouchers, with 29% opposed. According to James Bender, President of School Choice Wisconsin, nearly half of Milwaukee students are now enrolled in “schools of choice,” meaning either charter schools or private schools.
Like Milwaukee, students in D.C. and more recently Indiana have been offered vouchers to attend schools of their choice. As they do in Milwaukee, vouchers poll well in both Indiana and D.C. One survey found that 66% of Hoosiers favored vouchers, with only 24% opposed. And in the nation’s capital, a poll found that 77% of D.C. voters support vouchers.