By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — It’s go time for the statewide expansion of school choice in Wisconsin.
After attending the required trainings, filling out paperwork and sending in fees to the state Department of Public Instruction, administrators in 48 private schools will try to attract as many applicants as possible for the opportunity to take part in the first year of the newly expanded voucher program.
“We’re very excited to be part of the program,” said Karen Konop, director of admissions at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy, a Catholic high school with about 750 students in Green Bay. “We really don’t know what to expect for how many of our current students or new students will apply (for vouchers).”
Many of the schools vying to become part of the school choice program will extend hours during the next week for those seeking voucher applications.
Between Thursday and Aug. 9, parents and guardians across the state may apply online for the opportunity to enroll their child in a voucher program. Applicants will need to verify income and residency to be accepted.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the statewide voucher bill earlier this year to the vehement opposition of public education advocates. Gov. Scott Walker signed the compromise legislation.
Among the critics, state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who called school choice expansion the “beginning of the dismantling of public schools.”
The program is capped at 500 students this school year. That number will grow to 1,000 students next year.
The state Department of Public Instruction on Wednesday released a list of the 48 schools that applied to be part of the program. If more than 500 students apply for vouchers, only the 25 schools with the most applicants will be eligible this year to take part.
In that scenario, each of the 25 schools receives 10 student vouchers. A random lottery fills out the final 250 spots among those schools. Preference for vouchers is given to children who attended public school last year.
Konop said her school has hosted several open houses in recent weeks to give parents information on applying for vouchers. The school also has advertised on church bulletins and sent letters out to families in the school asking them to apply for the voucher program if they meet the income threshold of 185 percent of the federal poverty level — around $43,750 for a family of four.
The administrator said if her school is accepted in the choice program, the voucher payments from the state would allow Notre Dame to spread around its tuition grant money to help more local families afford tuition at the school.
Several of the 48 schools, including Notre Dame Academy, have school choice application information on their websites.
Donna Larson, principal of Mary Queen of Saints Catholic Academy in West Allis, says she hopes, but doesn’t expect, her school will be one of the 25.
“I’m thinking other schools and school systems are bigger than ours so they may get more applicants,” Larson told Wisconsin Reporter. “The hardest part I think is that it’s been hard to communicate to parents that, just because you apply doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
Mary Queen of Saints Catholic Academy is a 3k through eighth-grade school with nearly 180 students. Larson said if the school doesn’t end up as one of the 25 schools, she will apply again next year.
Larson said the school also will become part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program this year. The Catholic school’s entry allows students living in Milwaukee to apply for vouchers to attend the West Allis school. She said about 40 of the school’s students live in Milwaukee.
If more than 500 students apply for vouchers, nine schools that participated in the MPCP last year that also applied to be part of the statewide voucher program will be ineligible for the wider voucher program this year.
Those schools will be part of the Milwaukee program.
Six private schools in the Green Bay area have applied; four applied in Sheboygan; three in Milwaukee; two in Waukesha; and one in Madison.
Tia Sierra, principal at Lighthouse Christian School, a Madison 4k through seventh-grade school with about 50 students, said she hopes being the only school that applied for the program in the state’s second largest city helps Lighthouse get into the choice program. She said 95 percent of the school’s students qualify for vouchers based on income.
“I’m hoping we get a lot of people applying so we can get those spots. We’re already a low-income school; it’s a perfect program for us,” Sierra said.
If not, there’s always next year.
“We’ve been a school for eight years,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for this for eight years. It’s OK if we have to wait another year. We’re committed to it. Our parents are committed to it.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at WisconsinReporter.com