MILWAUKEE – Under Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s biennial budget proposal to the state legislature, new education reform provisions were added that may significantly increase the number of educational options for low-income Milwaukee families by expanding access to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

Under the old MPCP, students from low-income families who reside in the City of Milwaukee can attend any participating private school located in the city at no charge if certain eligibility criteria are met.

On Monday, March 21, archdiocesan principals and pastors gathered at the St. Joseph Center to discuss how the proposed educational reforms may affect their current choice schools, as well as how the schools considering becoming choice establishments should expect to proceed in light of the new provisions, which may be subject to change before the June start date. 

Kim Wadas, an attorney and a staff member of the Madison-based Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC), public policy arm of Wisconsin’s bishops, answered questions that principals and pastors had about the changes of MPCP, and how Catholic schools within the Milwaukee Archdiocese may be affected. She noted that the budget will be passed in June at the earliest, and between now and then, many changes may be made to the legislation.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and it could be amended and altered,” she said in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “We’re happy to see the expansion of the choice program, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.”

Under the current MPCP guidelines, there is an enrollment cap of 22,500 students per school year. This will change with the reformation, Wadas said, explaining Assembly Bill 40/Senate Bill 27. In addition, with the new budget any school within Milwaukee County can now participate in MPCP, whereas before participating schools had to be located within the City of Milwaukee.

“Please note that this still means that your students still have to come from the City of Milwaukee,” she told the pastors and school staff members. “The residency requirement for (student) participation hasn’t changed. The residency required for school participation has changed.”

Income eligibility changed

Students who have never participated in the choice program are eligible, under the new bill, for elimination of the current income eligibility requirement in participating schools, currently 175 percent, or $38,937 for a family of four, of the federal poverty level for a student who attended a choice school during the 2010-2011 school year. For current choice participants, the new income requirement is 220 percent of the poverty level, or $48,948 for a family of four.

By assessing where the student attended school and in what school year, administration can then correctly know how to look at their poverty level, according to Wadas.

“That determines whether or not the old income eligibility limits apply, or the no income eligibility applies,” she said. This doesn’t mean that administration can get out of doing income eligibility assessment, Wadas added.

For families that have not participated in the choice program, the income eligibility requirement is removed, however, schools will be given the option of charging tuition to families earning above 325 percent of the federal poverty level.

Thus, in addition to the $6,442 the school would receive from the voucher program, the school can also charge a tuition fee to that family, Wadas explained.
Many principals and pastors had questions about students that currently attend their schools and how this new provision would affect them. Some questioned whether students in eighth grade who are preparing for high school the following year will qualify.
“The rule is, did they attend a choice school in the 2010/2011 school year? So, it doesn’t matter if they attended a choice high school or a choice elementary school, it’s ‘Did they attend a choice school?’” she reemphasized.
New rules are an ‘arbitrary line in the sand’
While the rules regarding who is charged tuition and who is not can be a bit tricky to figure out for school administration, there is a simple explanation as to why it has been formed like it has, according to Wadas.
“The answer is really simple,” she said. “We have a $3.6 billion deficit facing us in the next two years. This legislature is funding the expansion of choice but they also understand it requires a fiscal note any time you expand choice, and if you just kind of open the doors and apply the new income eligibility rules across the board, it would be a big fiscal note. As it is, I guarantee you there are going to be public school advocates who are not comfortable with this expansion. So, just be aware that that’s why there is kind of this arbitrary line in the sand.”

The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) will also be eliminated under the new bill.
“In the budget bill, that requirement to use WKCE is eliminated; you can go back to nationally standardized tests,” Wadas said, explaining that because the WKCE is considered to be a “substandard” test, other standardized tests – such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills – can be used.
“The Department of Public Instruction has had a habit of midway through choice school years or academic years of altering policy for choice schools,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the audit requirements, sometimes it’s the residency documentation and what you can use.
Two area schools that could potentially benefit from the changes in the program, according to Wadas, are Dominican and St. Thomas More high schools. Both schools are located in Milwaukee County, but draw many city residents.

Todd Sobotka, president of St. Thomas More High School, Milwaukee, told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview that while he realizes that the changes to MPCP may bring the school into unknown territories, he sees giving students more educational choices as a positive thing.
“More options for families is a great thing,” he said. “This option for Thomas More is a great thing. We’re continually evaluating what this will mean for us and for our community; obviously, the devil’s in the details, as everything that’s out there right now is just a proposal. So, it’s really just evaluating, building some scenarios, making some assumptions on what would be a good fit.

“Obviously, I love the fact that families now have potentially this option, I love the fact that St. Thomas More might have this option, but we’re constantly evaluating on what’s best for our community,” he said, adding that if the changes go into effect this June, it doesn’t leave much time for the school to truly prepare for choice students in terms of enrollment, but they are more than willing to figure it out.
“I think every week since (Gov. Walker) has made that proposal, I’m in the double digits. Meeting with people who have been involved with choice schools – especially at the high school level – have been to every little meeting that’s had – by every which way – by various groups, just to get the variety of perspectives and feedback…. I don’t think there are many people out there who are speaking negatively of (choice schools).”
Choice schools are ‘social justice issue’
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, reminded the gathering that education is a social justice issue.

“This is a social justice issue, and I really have to plead with each of you to weigh this, to reflect on this, in light not of convenience, but of the truth and the goodness and the educational value, that this has the option to be – to really promote – the work that is being done in our choice schools is nothing short of amazing,” she said.
“It is at great personal cost for the people who are invested in this, but it’s an opportunity to do for the church, and to do for the people of God in our community, something that is very unique and very special. And so, I need to ask you, please, to let those values never be lost in your considerations,” she added.