ST. FRANCIS — Legislation passed late in the summer has allowed the Milwaukee Parental School Choice program to expand to more schools in southeast Wisconsin and already five schools have jumped at the opportunity.
St. Thomas More High School, Milwaukee; St. Martin of Tours, Franklin; and in Racine Our Lady of Grace Academy, St. Joseph Elementary School and John Paul II Academy are welcoming choice students.
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said parents have a right to choose a Catholic education for their children.
“I am supportive of all Catholic social teachings, including the ways in which our schools serve the needs of the disadvantaged,” Cepelka said.
Catholic schools have shown an increase in enrollment in the choice program from 7,502 students last year to 8,831 this year; about 27 percent of all Catholic students are school choice.
“We’re up, enrollment-wise, by about 1 percent,” Cepelka said. “It’s the first time in 13 years that we’ve seen an enrollment increase.”
School choice facts
This is the first year schools in Racine can participate in the school choice program. In Milwaukee, for the 2010-2011 school year, there were 20,189.4 full-time equivalent school choice students as of an audit on Nov. 18, 2010, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
According to documents on the DPI website, in the 2010-2011 school year, state aid for a student enrolled full time in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was $6,442 or the private school’s operating and debt service cost per student, whichever is less. The program was estimated to cost more than $130 million for the estimated full-time equivalent students.
Kim Wadas, associate director of education and health care at the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy voice for the state’s bishops, says the expansion of school choice has more to do with the income eligibility requirement than anything else.
“To be eligible before, you had to make 220 percent of the federal poverty level; now it’s increased to 300 percent of the federal poverty level,” Wadas said. “Once they become eligible, they won’t need to do another income eligibility assessment.”
Wadas said the expansion allows for any student in the cities of Milwaukee and Racine to attend choice schools.
“That opens the door for schools in West Allis, Wauwatosa,” Wadas said. “They still can only serve city of Milwaukee or MPS students and then Racine Unified School District students, but the school can be located anywhere.”
However, the addition of school choice to more schools isn’t the only reason for the increased enrollment.
“We have 21 schools that increased their enrollment that are not choice schools,” Cepelka said. “We certainly realize, as we’re growing our schools in many areas, we need to be very systematic about planning for the future of those schools and aiding those schools in terms of their expansion.”
These days money is tight for a lot of families and the archdiocese understands their frustration.
“We recognize the tremendous financial sacrifice it is for families, but we hope that people, as we move forward here, will have this option because of increased financial support that will be provided by other sources, such as a single government program, but not exclusively this source,” Cepelka said.
She said the archdiocese doesn’t mandate schools participate in the school choice program but provides resources and guidance for those that do. Although there haven’t been any problems with the increase, she said the archdiocese is prepared for that.
“If there would be a need to open a second section of a class, that’s something that would be done,” Cepelka said.
CURRENT ENROLLMENT NUMBERS FOR ARCHDIOCESAN SCHOOLS
Fond du Lac
With a high volume of applicants, each school needs to take steps to ensure the application process is fair to everyone.
Wadas said choice schools are allowed to determine how many seats they have for choice students.
“It’s really the school that sets how many choice seats they’re going to have and they do that through their own calculations, their measurements, as to who they can accommodate for choice,” Wadas said.
If a school fills all of its choice seats there will be a “lottery” for recently vacated seats as it is common for parents to apply to more than one school.
“You get this kind of lottery process, random selection and pick out which students are going to get those seats,” Wadas said. “There is a priority for returning students and siblings of students, but I think what you’ll see is not only increased enrollment for those schools that can’t accommodate more school choice, (but) you’ll see increased competition for those seats.”
Wadas said choice schools aren’t allowed to charge choice students extra fees on things like gym clothes and uniforms. It also requires the schools take the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination.
There are also new measures, Wadas says, that focus on keeping administrators honest with the process.
“(The Wisconsin Catholic Conference) supported some of the accountability measures that came in because there were, in the past, some bad actor schools that participate in the choice program,” Wadas said. “We always encourage schools to follow those accountability measures.”
The school choice program has already had an impact on public schools in Racine.
Since the program’s beginning, the Racine Unified School District has lost up to 200 students and some schools are down as many as 50 students, according to Stacy Tapp, director of communications and public information for RUSD.
“The voucher system also led to reduced funding for the district without a means to make adjustments for savings,” Tapp said. “State funds were also cut by more than $500,000 by the voucher program which will increase property taxes for Racine area taxpayers.”
But overall, Wadas said the main goal is to give everyone a fair education.
“The primary educator of any child is the parent and parental choice empowers that parent to make choices that are the best for their child,” Wadas said. “Part of making the program successful is producing high quality students and our schools have a record of that.”