Columbus one of 25 schools to participate in expanded voucher program
Written by Logan Carlson, News-Herald Media
Marshfield’s Columbus Catholic Schools will be a participant in the inaugural year of the expanded statewide voucher program, the Wisconsin Department of Instruction announced Thursday.
The voucher program has existed in Milwaukee for more than two decades, and was expanded to Racine in 2011. The statewide expansion was a compromise between Gov. Scott Walker and Republican senators during negotiations over the state’s biennium budget earlier this year.
The expansion is limited to 500 students in the first year, but more than 2,400 students applied in the nine-day enrollment period, more than 250 students a day. Because more students applied than spots available, only the 25 schools with the most applicants are eligible.
The Marshfield Catholic schools received a total of 83 applications.
Each school that made the cut is guaranteed at least 10 spots, with the remaining 250 being drawn at random. As such, schools with a large number of applicants are likely to see more students based on random chance, but Columbus Catholic Schools President David Eaton said most should see about 20 this year.
“We were pretty pleased (with how many students applied),” Eaton said. “We’re thrilled to be in the top 25 and that we’ll have families who will be attending using vouchers. We’re just waiting now to find out how many that might be.”
The law as written does not give public school students priority in the lottery over those who already are in private school. Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature said their intent was to give public school students priority and said they’ll look at changing the law this fall. But that will be too late for the coming school year.
A total of 2,069 students applied to the 25 schools participating in the program — all of which are religiously affiliated — with 1,393 of those attending a private school in Wisconsin last year.
The fact that two thirds of the students eligible to participate in the program this year are coming from private schools worries Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.
“These are entitlements to families who have already demonstrated their ability to send their children to private schools,” Shankland said. “Public school students won’t get preference even though proponents were arguing throughout the expansion it would allow public school students greater access to private school.”
“This isn’t an unintended mistake. They wanted this all along,” Shankland said of voucher school supporters wanting to funnel taxpayer money to private religious schools.
The high interest in the first year of the expanded program will only increase the call among supporters to loosen enrollment caps, which doubles to 1,000 in the 2014 school year. There are no caps on the program in Milwaukee and Racine.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would push for greater expansion in the next state budget, which will be introduced in 2015. Previously, Walker has said he intends to revisit the enrollment caps every year to see whether they need to be raised.
“The unfortunate reality is that nearly four out of five children will be rejected due to the restrictive cap,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.
St. Joseph School in Stratford did not make the top 25 schools, having narrowly missed the cutoff. St. Joseph received 27 applicants, four short of what Lighthouse Christian School in Madison received.
“We’re proud of our showing. If you look at the numbers, those are much larger cities. Obviously, there is more need there in those communities,” said Debbie Johnson, St. Joseph’s principal. “I think there is a need for faith-filled, value-based education.”
St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System in Appleton had the most students apply with 193. The Green Bay and De Pere area had four schools or school systems admitted to the program.
Kenosha, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Wisconsin Rapids all had two each. There were 11 other communities with one school or system each.
All applicants, regardless of attending public or private schools, must meet income requirements. Those are $43,752 for a family of four, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Married couples with two or more children can earn up to $50,752 and still qualify.
Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.