Participation in state voucher program rising
Since the private school voucher system opened up statewide a few years ago, participation has been rising dramatically, both locally and across the state.
Participating schools in Jefferson County include Calvary Baptist Christian School in Watertown, Crown of Life Christian Academy in Fort Atkinson, Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Watertown, Lakeside Lutheran High School in Lake Mills, Luther Preparatory School in Watertown.
Maranatha Baptist Academy in Watertown, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran School in Jefferson, St. John’s Lutheran School in Watertown, St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Fort Atkinson, and St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Helenville.
Jefferson County residents are not limited to schools within the county, however. If eligible, they can use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend any participating school in the state, providing they have their own transportation.
In total, 262 religious and private nonsectarian schools have registered with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to accept state vouchers for the 2019-20 school year. This is up 40 schools from the past year.
The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program allows students who reside outside of the Milwaukee Public and Racine Unified school districts to use a taxpayer-funded subsidy to attend participating private or religious schools.
To qualify for the program for the upcoming 2019-20 school year, a new student must have a family income equal to or less than 220 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $55,220 for a family of four or $62,220 if the child’s parents or guardians are married.
Generally, for the statewide choice program for the 2019-20 school year, students must (1) be applying to 4- or 5-year-old kindergarten or first- or ninth-grade; or (2) meet one of the following requirements for the prior school year (a) attended a public school in Wisconsin (b) attended school in another state were not enrolled in school (d) participated in the choice program (e) were on a choice waiting list or (3) were on any prior year’s WPCP waiting list due to a school district enrollment cap.
Eligible students in kindergarten through eighth grade may attend the private school without charge for tuition. Continuing choice students in high school might be charged tuition if their family income exceeds 220 percent of the federal poverty level.
The private school, on behalf of each student’s parent or guardian, receives a state aid payment for each eligible choice student. For next year, the amount has been set for $7,754 for students up through eighth grade and $8,400 for high-schoolers.
Transportation is not covered by the DPI, nor does a private choice school have to provide transportation to choice students.
In 2015-16, the School District of Jefferson included zero dollars for vouchers, said Laura Peachey, director of business services for the district. In 2016-17, the district recorded $23,261 going to vouchers
Last year, in 2017-18, Peachey said, $56,586 was directed to vouchers. That raised the local tax bill by that much.
This year, the amount dedicated to private school vouchers doubled to more than $110,493.
That is equivalent to one-seventh of the current operational referendum.
School District of Johnson Creek Superintendent Mike Garvey said he was unable to immediately dig up the specific number of voucher students living in the district, but he said that so far, it was negligible.
That said, he added, “Vouchers certainly cut into the aid available to all districts. We have heard over time, and I believe, that we cannot sufficiently fund, with taxpayer dollars, two separate educational systems.
“The direct impact of vouchers on Johnson Creek continues to rise, but because of our location, is not significant,” he said.
“If vouchers continue to grow or the list of voucher schools continues to grow, we’ll see an uptick in the impact,” he concluded.