Milwaukee boasts the largest school voucher program in the country. More than 25,000 students here are participating. Wisconsin also runs its own statewide program, along with another in Racine.
Choice programs give interested families public education dollars, or vouchers, to send their kids to private schools.
Educators across the country are celebrating school choice week.
Yet not everybody is raving about vouchers. Advocates for public schools say the program is siphoning crucial tax money from local districts.
Wisconsin funds its public schools based on enrollment. Every year, the state awards each district a chunk of tax dollars proportional to the number of kids in local schools. So if a district loses students, it also loses money.
And that’s true no matter why a student might leave.
Wisconsin has expanded its choice program statewide and to middle-income families, more students have been using vouchers. It means tax money follows the child out of the public system and into whichever private school they choose to attend.
"It just bleeds down the resources for public schools," says Alan Tuchtenhagen, a school board member in River Falls.
Tuchtenhagen acknowledges that when students use vouchers to move to private schools, it means public schools are educating fewer kids. Yet districts must still provide a wide array of services.
"I don't get a voucher for law enforcement, so that I can hire my own law enforcement to protect my property. We don’t get a voucher for snow removal, so I can hire my own people to remove my snow, or anything else in our communities," he says. "It just sets a bad precedent, allowing people to, in this particular area in education, earmark their tax dollars for a specific thing."
The choice program is relatively new to districts such as Tuchtenhagen's. While Wisconsin created Milwaukee's program more than a quarter century ago, state leaders created the statewide program just a few years ago.
The state pays about 60 percent of the total cost of a voucher, while the remaining 40 percent is paid by the school district in which a voucher program is located. That money comes through a reduction in the district's state aid.
This year, those districts lost more than $16 million dollars in tax money to vouchers, and public education advocates worry about what’s next.
Right now, the statewide program is capped – no more than one percent of kids in a district can participate. But interest is growing, so lawmakers have paved the way to gradually raise the limit and eliminate it altogether by 2026.
Kim Kaukl is executive director of Wisconsin's Rural School Alliance. He says those districts stand to lose the most, even if they lose only a few kids to vouchers.
"In rural districts that’s getting harder and harder to keep, especially some of the advanced programs," Kaukl explains. "An advanced placement class may only have three of four kids. Well, that’s going to be pretty hard to keep offering a program like that if you’ve only got three or four students."
Kaukl says what could further tie districts’ hands is a plan in the legislature to limit how often school districts can ask local voters to raise taxes for school purposes. He says, in some cases, that’s been a tool districts have used to recoup money lost to vouchers.
"Putting a one or two year limit on it will really cripple some districts to not meet their payrolls and things like that," Kaukl says. "We need to have the referendums to keep moving forward, otherwise some schools may eventually have to close their doors."
In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Scott Walker said he will do more to invest in public education. He will also be one of those celebrating school choice week, insisting families deserve options.
These days, a statewide voucher ranges in value from approximately $7,000 per grade school student to a little less than $8,000 for high school.