Education Funding – Part IV of Series – School Choice


School Choice

School Choice was originally enacted in 1989 as Act 336, and the program began in the 1990-91 school year. The program helps low-income students to move to private to schools to help alleviate pressures on the Milwaukee Public School District, and to give students and their parents more options in their education. When the program first started in Milwaukee under Governor Tommy Thompson, students with an income of less than 175% of the federal poverty limit could apply to the program. Private schools that wanted to be a part of the program were required to be nonsectarian and located in the City of Milwaukee. No more than 1% of the MPS student enrollment could participate in the program and no more than 49% of a school’s enrollment could consist of choice students. In 1993, those thresholds were increased to 1.5% and 65% respectively. The Milwaukee program was expanded in 1995 to allow sectarian schools to participate in the program and the participation limit was increased to 15% of the MPS enrollment. At that same time, the percentage limit on the number of choice students a choice school could have was eliminated. In 2005, legislation was enacted requiring choice schools to achieve accreditation and to administer nationally-normed standardized tests.  The enrollment limit for the program was increased to 22,500 and raised the family income eligibility limit to under 220% of the federal poverty limit. In 2011, the enrollment limit was eliminated on the Milwaukee program, and the income eligibility limit was raised to 300% of the federal poverty limit.

2011 was also the first time the choice program was expanded outside the Milwaukee Public School District; Racine Unified School District was the only district to meet the new criteria and so the program was expanded to Racine.  The 2011 legislation limited Racine to no more than 250 pupils in 2011-12 and 500 pupils in 2012-13.  Beginning in 2013-14 school year, the cap on the number of students in Racine was eliminated. The choice program was then expanded statewide in the 2013 legislative session.  While Milwaukee still had a 300% federal poverty limit eligibility, Racine and the statewide programs are held to 185% of the federal poverty limit for family income eligibility. There were caps put into place on the Racine program and the statewide program, but in 2015 the 1,000 pupil limit on the statewide program was eliminated and instead the program is limited to no more than 1% of that school district’s prior year membership in 2015-16 and 2016-17.  Starting in 2017-18, the participation limit increases by one percentage point in each year until it reaches 10% in 2025-26. Beginning in 2026-27 there will be no limit on the number of students who can participate in the statewide choice program.

When the choice program began in Milwaukee the program was paid through a sum sufficient appropriation for the program.  MPS was allowed to count the choice students for revenue limits and aid, but then a reduction was taken in MPS aid.  It was determined that aid would only be reduced in MPS and other school districts could not be harmed or benefit in the reduction in MPS aid. The 2013 budget created the statewide expansion of the choice program and changed how funding was done for choice students.  Students were now given a per pupil payment with increases adjusted at the revenue limit per pupil adjustment plus a change in categorical aid funding per pupil. With the expansion of choice statewide, all state aids are reduced to cover the costs of the program.  Here are memos pertaining to aid reductions and school choice programs.

Over the tenure of the program many changes have been made to the program in terms of teacher certification requirements, school programs and minimum requirements, testing standards, program accountability, and audits.

Helpful websites for additional information:

School Choice Wisconsin.

DPI – Private School Choice Programs.