Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program was enacted and launched in 1990 and is considered the nation’s first modern private school choice program. It offers private school vouchers to low-income Milwaukee students. Learn more about this pioneering school voucher program, including funding, eligibility, rules and legal history, here.
Launched the modern private school choice “movement”
28,917 participating students (2018–19)
69 percent of families with children income-eligible districtwide
129 participating schools (2018–19)
Average voucher value: $7,708 (2017–18)
Value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 67 percent
Milwaukee students from low-income families are eligible to receive vouchers to attend any participating private school in the state.
In 2019–20, the maximum voucher amounts are $7,954 for grades K–8 and $8,600 for grades 9–12. Each school year, maximum voucher payments increase by a dollar amount equal to the dollar-amount increase in general school aid to Wisconsin public schools. Parents of students in grades 9–12 that have an income greater than 220 percent of the federal poverty level ($56,650 for a family of four in 2019–20) may be charged additional tuition exceeding the voucher amount.
Students who live in Milwaukee and whose family income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible ($77,250 for a family of four in 2019–20). Moreover, a family’s income limit increases by $7,000 if the student’s parents/legal guardians are married. Students who are continuing the program from previous years and those who were on a school’s waiting list in the prior year because the school did not have space available do not need to demonstrate income eligibility. Once a student receives a voucher, that student is able to keep it, regardless of his or her family’s future income.
The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s income limits cover approximately three-fourths of Milwaukee families with children, earning strong marks on eligibility. However, the maximum voucher of $7,954 (K–9) and $8,600 (9–12) per pupil is only slightly more than half of what Milwaukee public school students get. Additionally, the program’s regulations are quite burdensome. Religious schools cannot require religious classes for participating students. To participate, private schools must submit to mandatory academic standards, administer the state test, adhere to specific hours of yearly instruction, admit students on a random basis and cannot charge tuition above the amount of the voucher or use their own admission standards. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program could improve in several areas by expanding eligibility, raising voucher amounts closer to public school students’ levels and eliminating unnecessary and burdensome regulations on participating schools. That could include allowing parents—not the state—to determine which tests their children take in private school and removing the reporting requirements.
In June 2011, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, alleging that the Milwaukee voucher program violates federal laws prohibiting discrimination against students with disabilities. On December 23, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division of the Educational Opportunities Section, issued a letter to Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction, informing the superintendent that after a rigorous evaluation, the Department of Justice has determined that no further action is warranted and that their investigation is now closed. There were no findings of wrongdoing.
In 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the Milwaukee voucher program does not violate either the state’s Compelled Support Clause or Blaine Amendment. The court also affirmed the conclusions of Davis v. Grover, an earlier uniformity challenge to the school choice program. Davis v. Grover, 480 N.W.2d 460 (Wis. 1992). Jackson v. Benson, 218 Wis. 2d 835, 578 N.W.2d 602 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 967 (1998).
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