As we wrap up National School Choice Week, it’s important to remember the facts in our state: Wisconsin is home to the nation’s oldest voucher program, and due to the parental choice programs, more than 81,000 students across the state are able to attend a private school or public charter school of their choice.
To qualify for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) a student’s family must be 220 percent below the federal poverty level and for both the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and the Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP), a family must be 300 percent below the federal poverty level. In Milwaukee alone, there are more than 28,000 students currently enrolled in the MPCP, which has grown from just a few hundred students at its inception in 1990. For a point of reference, the Milwaukee Public school system educates 76,000 students today, so the MPCP has provided many Milwaukee families with the option of choosing the best school for their student.
However, there’s still work to do. Out of Wisconsin’s 2,110 public schools, 344 either “fail to meet expectations” or “meet few expectations” on the state report card. For Milwaukee Public Schools, 72 of its 154 public schools, almost half, received one or two stars. These numbers are bleak, and for families who do not qualify for the MPCP, students who attend failing neighborhood public schools are stuck.
Henry Tyson, Superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, has a personal and passionate understanding of the importance of school choice. “St. Marcus has been successful in part because the competition struggles,” he said. “We are in a city where failure is rampant, so the supply of students is enormous.”
St. Marcus Lutheran School is a highly respected choice school and when considering the need to support and expand the parental choice programs, St. Marcus serves as an excellent model. The school educates approximately 900 students in K3 through eighth grade at two campuses and nearly 96 percent of the students participate in the MPCP.
St. Marcus began accepting students through Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP) with the program’s launch in the 2016–17 school year. Currently, St. Marcus operates the largest special education program for private school students in the state, serving 86 students with disabilities in grades K4 through eighth grade (10.4 percent of its total school population). With SNSP financial support, St. Marcus expanded its staff of licensed special education teachers, therapists, and program support staff to better serve students with autism, cognitive disabilities, traumatic brain injury, emotional behavior disabilities, specific learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, significant developmental delays, and other health impairments.
St. Marcus is proof that school choice is working and parents are voting with their feet. Last February, there were 1,100 K4-eighth grade applicants to St. Marcus, far more than they could accommodate. The school currently has a wait list of 200 students. “Parents want a safe, disciplined, faith-based venue for their children to be educated,” Tyson said. “That’s in high demand.”
St. Marcus’s success has been and continues to be celebrated. WILL profiled St. Marcus in our Economic Benefits of School Choice in Milwaukee study and created a video (below) that discusses the impact of St. Marcus and the parental choice programs. But the true success of St. Marcus Lutheran School is the impact it is having on each student.
St. Marcus educates students from K3 through eighth grade, but their students have phenomenal success rates after leaving their school, with 85 percent of students going on to graduate high school and 70 percent doing some sort of post-secondary education such as military service, associate’s, or bachelor’s degrees.
Without school choice, economically disadvantaged families in Milwaukee would never have access to schools like St. Marcus. We must continue to find ways to expand and support high-performing choice schools or the overwhelming student need won’t be met. For this reason, National School Choice Week is a time to celebrate the great impact and success of school choice. But let it also be a time to remember the continuous need across Wisconsin and, in particular, the many students who lack access to a great school and a quality education.
Libby Sobic is a Director and Legal Counsel for Education at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Cori Petersen is a writer and research analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.