Private-School Voucher Program Keeps Growing

Some not happy with the diverted public school taxes

The amount of local school tax revenue diverted to the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program has grown every year since the state established the school voucher program in 2013-14.

State rules have allowed more private schools to enter the program since then, and more parents have been able to use the program under income requirements the state has made more lenient.

Tax bills do not have a line item that shows taxpayers how much public schools are paying in vouchers to private schools, Sue Todey, Sevastopol school board member and past president of Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), said several WASB members want to see that number displayed on local tax bills.

“It looks like we’ll lose $22,800 to the voucher program,” Sevastopol board president Lisa Bieri said during this month’s school board meeting. That $22,800 total equates to the cost for vouchers to send one high school student and one elementary student to a private school.

Ironically, property-rich districts such as Sevastopol and Gibraltar Area School District lose more revenue to the voucher programs than they receive in state aid. Gibraltar schools’ tax diversion to the statewide voucher program is projected at $12,387, while the district will receive $1,500 or less in state aid for operations, said Brett Stousland, Gibraltar superintendent. 

What is the Private School Voucher Program?

The state has three private school programs: one for Milwaukee, one for Racine and one for the rest of the state – the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. The Wisconsin program allows families to apply for a state voucher to cover enrollment costs at parochial or charter schools, and the public school districts cover that cost for families residing within their boundaries.

Families with incomes at 220% of the federal poverty level currently are eligible to use public tax money to attend local private schools, said Dan Rossmiller, Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) executive director. A family of four in Wisconsin with an income of $61,050 could receive a voucher in 2022. The income level increased to $66,000 in 2023 based on the adjusted federal poverty level.

“It’s become a middle-class program, rather than one for the poor,” Rossmiller. 

Originally created in 1995 for the poorest families in Milwaukee and expanded for families in failing districts in Racine in 2011, the program opened up to all Wisconsin families during the Gov. Scott Walker administration in 2013 and 2014. 

The state has changed the eligibility requirements over the years, and the program has continued to grow to allow more families and schools to participate. Rossmiller is currently monitoring legislative proposals seeking to remove the income caps, which could mean further increases in public funding for private-school attendance.

Rossmiller said public schools try to make up for losses. He said he talked to one superintendent in the Manawa area who was increasing the tax levy by 400% to compensate for a combination of tax base increases, losses in state aid and revenue diverted to the voucher program.

In addition, ever since a 2020 lawsuit, once a family qualifies for a voucher, the family remains qualified regardless of increases in household income in subsequent years, said Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman Chris Bucher.

Sevastopol’s Bieri said she believes public taxes should go to public schools rather than private-school students elsewhere. Sevastopol board member Jerry Worrick said he sees value in the private school vouchers and he would hate to see the program eliminated. He said he would not be pleased to learn that low-income, inner-city students who made progress at private or charter schools were being sent back to a failing public school.