School choice voucher program should be expanded in Wisconsin Print
Written by Pam Payne   
Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

My husband and I chose to send our children to Catholic schools. We were able to afford the tuition to make that choice, while at the same time paying taxes to support public school education.

We were fortunate to be able to choose the schools we wanted for our children, but not everyone has the financial resources to make that choice. Although Catholic schools provide much financial aid, there are still families that can’t afford to send their children to a Catholic school.

Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

Twenty-three years ago, Wisconsin did something about that problem by starting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. This program provides state-paid tuition vouchers to enable low-income students to enroll in private schools in the City of Milwaukee. The pro­gram, which has survived legal challenges in the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts, began operation in 1990 with about 340 students.

At first the Milwaukee program only provided vouchers for students attending private nonsectarian schools. However, in 1995 it was expanded to allow vouchers for children attending religious schools. It was stipulated that a school must excuse a student from participation in any religious instruction or activity at the request of the child’s parent or guardian (very few people have taken this option).

Expansion to Racine and possibly more cities

In 2011, new legislation signed by Governor Scott Walker allowed for the creation of the Racine voucher program and expanded the 21-year-old Milwaukee voucher program. The new law raised the income limits to allow middle-income students to qualify for vouchers, allowed participating private schools to be located outside the Milwaukee city boundary, and dropped the 22,500-student cap on enrollment in Milwaukee.

This year, in his proposed budget, Governor Walker is supporting expansion of the voucher program to help low-income families in more communities. Among those being considered are Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Waukesha, and West Allis.

While Wisconsin led the way in school choice, other states are actually making greater strides. In 2011, 13 states enacted school choice programs. A total of 19 programs were enacted or improved, including the creation of eight new programs and the expansion of 11 existing ones.

“It’s undeniable — the tide of school choice is rising. Throughout the nation, parents are demanding options,” according to 2012 ABCs of School Choice: Rising Tide, published by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Advantages of school choice

Why is this happening? Americans have been experiencing the advantages that school choice is offering to students in choice programs, to families and communities, and even to public schools. School choice forces all schools — public and private — to compete and innovate in order to offer the best education possible to attract and retain students.

Students in voucher schools in Milwaukee have higher graduation rates and there are more students going to college than their public school counterparts. Parental satisfaction is also reported to be higher in voucher schools.

Families in other parts of Wisconsin should have the opportunity to have the power and the freedom to choose a school based on its quality and their child’s needs.

I encourage concerned citizens to contact their state senators and assembly representatives urging them to support expansion of the voucher program. For more information on this issue and how to be an advocate for school choice, go to the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools website at

Time is of the essence, since the state Legislature is expected to be debating this issue soon.