Voucher History in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin voucher program, called the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), was established in 1989.  The first year of operation was in 1990.  Originally the program was limited to 300 students whose families had an income less than 175% of the poverty level.  The students also had to have been in the Milwaukee public schools before applying and only non-sectarian schools were acceptable a voucher schools.  The initial law included funding for an evaluation component.  This evaluation was done for the first 5 years by Professor John Witte of the UW-Madison faculty. 

In a 1998 decision the Wisconsin Supreme Court said the program was constitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that decision.

Almost all details of the program have changed since 1990.  The number of vouchers available was expanded over the years until today there is no limit on the number of participants. The requirement that students attend MPS first was eliminated.  Sectarian schools began to participate starting in 1998.  The family income cap was increased in the 2011-13 state budget to 300% of the poverty level – meaning that a family of 4 (2 parents and 2 children) could earn up to $77,700 and still be eligible.  The funding for evaluation was eliminated after the first 5 years. 

For the first 10-12 years, there was very little oversight of the voucher schools.   Starting in 2001, DPI began to require more extensive financial reporting.  In 2005, DPI required that all teaching staff at voucher schools must have a high school diploma; in 2009 this requirement was increased to require a bachelor’s degree (though there is no requirement for teacher certification).  Also in 2010-11, the voucher schools were first mandated to administer the same tests that all state public schools must administer. 

The initial rationale – and the most frequent justification – for private school vouchers was that students from poor families deserved access to the better education private schools would provide.  A secondary rationale was that the competition the voucher program would provide for MPS would improve their academic performance also.  There have been numerous studies done of the academic performance of voucher students compared to MPS students (and also a great deal of controversy as to the methods used) – multiple studies found that voucher students do not perform better in reading and math than similar public school students.

Between 1990 and 1995, voucher students took the same state required tests as MPS students.  This requirement was then dropped; 2010-11 was the first year that voucher students again took the same state tests that are required of all other publicly funded students.  The results:  MPS students scored higher on the tests than the voucher students.

Recently voucher proponents have been claiming that the voucher students have higher graduation rates than MPS students.  While it is true that the voucher high schools have a higher graduation rate than MPS high schools, there are some problems with relying on that data.  The biggest issue is that the private high schools that accept voucher students have fairly stringent academic criteria for their students, so students who don’t meet those criteria may be “accepted” into the schools – but then are let go once the semester begins because they aren’t able to meet the criteria; and those students return to MPS.  The Legislative Audit Bureau’s five year longitudinal study (2011) showed that approximately 75% of the voucher students who enrolled in 9th grade withdrew by 12th grade.

One major difference between MPS enrollment and that of the private voucher schools is related to special education needs.  In MPS about 20% of the students qualify for special education services; in the voucher schools, less than 3% qualify. 

The 2013-15 budget: 

  1. Expands private vouchers to any district that has an enrollment of 4,000 students or more and has 2 or more schools scoring less than 63 on the state report card.  Based on last year’s report cards, 9 districts would be eligible.  There are another 7 that are on the edge of qualifying.  Eligibility is permanent, regardless of how the district performs in future years. 
  2. Increases amount of the voucher to $7,050 for Pre-K to 8th grade and to $7,856 for high school students.
  3. Creates a new set of vouchers for students with special education needs.  These are vouchers to be used at private schools but do not require those schools to use the money to meet the specific needs of a student.
  4. Further erodes local control by establishing a statewide board that will have the power to authorize independent charter schools – which the local district will have to fund.


Glossary of Voucher Terms

Voucher Program
The Wisconsin voucher program has existed since 1990.  It provides funds to cover tuition for students in Milwaukee (and since 2011, in Racine) to attend private schools, including private religious-based schools.  Originally, these vouchers were limited to low-income families (those who earned up to 175% of the poverty level), but in 2011 this cap was increased to 300% of the poverty level (or as much as $77,700 for a family of 4).

Charter Schools
Charter schools vary significantly across the country since each state has its own charter school law.  In Wisconsin, charter schools are public, non-religious, tuition-free schools.  They are created through a contract (called a charter) between the operators of the charter school and the sponsoring school board.  (In Milwaukee and Racine, other agencies can also sponsor charter schools – Milwaukee Common Council, UW-Milwaukee, MATC and UW-Parkside for Racine.)  Charter schools are exempt from many state and local regulations.  In exchange for this flexibility, they are held accountable for meeting the student achievement goals set out in their contract. 

Charter schools may be organized as an “instrumentality” of the school district which means that the charter school employees are employed by the school district and entitled to the same benefits (insurance, unemployment compensation, retirement, etc) as all other district employees.  If charter schools are organized as a “non-instrumentality,” employees are not district employees but are employees of the charter school itself – the wages and benefits are then set by the charter school.

Open Enrollment
Wisconsin parents may apply to have their children attend a public school in a district other than the one in which they reside (e.g. a student lives in the Madison School District and the parent wants the student to attend a school in the Verona School District). The district of residence (Madison, in the example above) must pay the receiving district (Verona, in the example) approximately $7,000 for each student who is attending the other district’s school.  The district of residence is allowed to count that student in its student enrollment, a factor in determining the level of the revenue cap.

Virtual School
A virtual school is a school where instruction is provided to students who are physically remote from a “school building” and from the teacher.  Most of the student services and courses are conducted through internet technology.  Teachers must be licensed by Wisconsin DPI in the subjects and grade levels they are teaching.  The student/teacher ratio must be no more than 60:1 (and could be lower).  There are 16 virtual schools in Wisconsin and state law currently limits the number of students who can be enrolled in virtual schools to 5,250.  All students in virtual schools must take the state academic assessment tests.

Using Open Enrollment some virtual schools enroll as many as 800 students from around the state. As explained above, a student enrolling via Open Enrollment requires the district of residence to pay $7000 to the district running the virtual school. 

Magnet School  
Magnet schools are public schools with specialized courses or curricula, such as arts, science, foreign language, etc.  They are designed to attract students throughout a school district or geographic area.   

Home Schooling (aka Home Based Private Education) 
Home schooling refers to private education typically provided in a student’s home by a parent or guardian, but sometimes by a tutor or a virtual school.  Wisconsin has no certification or license requirements for those who provide instruction in home school programs, and it does not prescribe any assessment or testing for students enrolled in such programs.  A parent or guardian files a form with DPI indicating the intent to provide home schooling for the student and certifying that the instruction will provide 875 hours of instruction for the school year and that the education will “provide a sequentially progressive curriculum of fundamental instruction in six subject areas (reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and health).”  In 2009-10 there were 19,049 students in Wisconsin in home-based education programs.  Over the last 25 years, this enrollment has been 2% or less of the total number of Wisconsin students.

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