The attacks on private school choice in Governor Tony Evers’ proposed K-12 budget have become well-known in recent weeks. But lost in the fray over his attempts to remove private and charter school options from Wisconsin’s low-income kids is the fact that he also wants to undermine Wisconsin’s largest school choice program: the open enrollment program.

Open enrollment permits public school students to attend a public school outside of his/her residential district. This program is widely popular across the state with over 60,000 students participating in 2017-2018. School districts opt into the open enrollment program each year by voting on the number of seats available in the schools, programs and grades.

The program is set up to encourage districts to participate. Although a child is not attending the resident school district, the resident school district continues to count the child in its membership for state aid and revenue authority, although the aid is reduced by the open enrollment transfer amount set by the state. The nonresident district receives this transfer amount for the child from the resident school district.

Under current law, the transfer amount will increase if there are increases in K-12 aid. This is a win-win because the resident district can count the pupil under the revenue limit and the non-resident district receives additional revenue for a student who only marginally increases their costs.

But the governor’s proposal takes away these automatic increases (known as indexing) to the open enrollment program. By removing this indexing, open enrollment nonresident districts will not receive the same increase in funding as other K-12 schools will under Evers’ budget. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), districts will forgo about $158 per student in new revenue for the 2019-20 school year, and a staggering $595 per student in the 2020-21 school year.

This is important because school districts in Wisconsin have a choice about whether or not to allow a student to participate in open enrollment. Both the resident district and the nonresident district must approve a student transfer.

Because additional students bring additional costs, it is vital that the financial incentive exists for the receiving districts to take on the burden of an additional student. The table below shows the top 10 largest net receiving open enrollment districts in the state, based on the most recent year of data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, and the estimated revenue they would lose out on in each of the next two years under the governors’ plan.

Lost Revenue based on Governor Evers’ proposal
District Net Open Enrollment Lost Revenue 19-20 Lost Revenue 20-21 Total Lost Revenue
McFarland 2803 $442,874 $1,667,785 $2,110,659
Wauwatosa 1197 $189,126 $712,215 $901,341
Aschwaubenon 1020 $161,160 $606,900 $768,060
Appleton Area 956 $151,048 $568,820 $719,868
Grantsburg 819 $129,402 $487,305 $616,707
Merrill 606 $95,748 $360,570 $456,318
Howard Suamico 544 $85,952 $323,680 $409,632
Slinger 478 $75,524 $284,410 $359,934
DePere 417 $65,886 $248,115 $314,001

McFarland School District outside of Madison stands to be the biggest loser from Evers’ open enrollment changes. Over the next two years, the district would stand to lose over $2 million dollars in revenue.

But other primarily suburban districts stand to lose substantial amounts as well. Even DePere—the 10th largest net open enrollment district in the state—would lose more than $300,000 over the next two years. This forgone revenue is far from a drop in the bucket. It is substantial enough to potentially induce more districts to not participate in the open enrollment program, or for participating districts to reconsider increasing the number of seats they allow to be filled.

Legislators, governors, and local leaders in Wisconsin have worked for decades for a day where the accident of a ZIP code doesn’t limit the opportunities for the state’s children. For low income families that can’t afford to move to a better district, open enrollment offers an important opportunity at a better education.

From freezing the voucher program, to ending the tax credit for private school enrollment to the open enrollment changes discussed here, Evers appears to favor a return to a system where the vast majority of Wisconsin’s kids have no option about where to attend school other than their government-assigned district school. It is incumbent upon today’s policymakers to draw a line in the sand and defend the educational rights of some of its most vulnerable children.  

Libby Sobic  Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Will Flanders Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.