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Wisconsin – Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

Wisconsin – Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

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.

Program Fast Facts

  • Launched the modern private school choice “movement”

  • 28,188 participating students (2016–17)

  • 75 percent of families with children income-eligible districtwide

  • 121 participating schools (2016–17)

  • Average voucher value: $7,384 (2015–16)

  • Maximum value as a percentage of public school per-student spending: 66 percent

Program Details

Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program Participation

Students Participating
School Year Ending

Click the + symbols to learn more about this program’s details.

Milwaukee students from low-income families are eligible to receive vouchers to attend any participating private school in the state.

Student Funding

In 2016–17, the maximum voucher amount is $7,323 for grades K–8 and $7,969 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 ($54,120 for a family of four in 2017–18) may be charged additional tuition above the voucher amount.

Student Eligibility

Students who live in Milwaukee and whose family income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible ($73,800 for a family of four in 2017–18); 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.

EdChoice Expert Feedback

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s income limits cover approximately 68 percent of all Milwaukee families with children, earning strong marks on eligibility. However, the maximum voucher of $7,323 (K–8) and $7,969 (9–12) per pupil is only slightly more than half of what Milwaukee public school pupils get. Additionally, the program’s regulations are somewhat extensive. Voucher students must be allowed to opt out of religious programs. Also, participating private schools must submit to mandatory academic standards, specific hours of yearly instruction, and must admit students on a random basis and allow all applicants to enroll if they have capacity. Accountability provisions also require that state tests be used. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program could improve in each area: Increase eligibility, raise voucher amounts closer to public school students’ levels, and lower 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.

Rules and Regulations

  • Income Limit: 300 percent x Poverty
  • Prior Year Public School Requirement: None
  • Geographic Limit: District (Milwaukee)
  • Enrollment Cap: None
  • Voucher Cap: $7,323 (K–8) / $7,969 (9–12)
  • Testing Mandates: State


School Requirements:

  • Meet state nondiscrimination policies
  • Meet state health and safety codes
  • Allow students to opt out of religious programs
  • Administer state testing to voucher recipients in third, fourth, eighth, ninth, 10th, and 11th grade
  • Receive accreditation within three years of participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
  • Submit an annual financial audit conducted by a certified public accountant to the state
  • Admit eligible students on a random basis
  • Provide evidence of sound fiscal practices and financial viability to the state
  • School administrators must undergo financial training and have at least a teaching license or a bachelor’s degree from a nationally or regionally accredited institution of higher education
  • Teachers must have a teaching license or a bachelor’s degree from a nationally or regionally accredited institution of higher education and teacher aides must have received a high school diploma or been granted a GED or HSED
  • Must provide 1,050 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 1–6 and 1,137 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 7–12
  • Must provide the state with information about the academic program at the participating school and student test score data

Governing Statutes

Legal History

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 (1992), an earlier uniformity challenge to the school choice program. Jackson v. Benson, 218 Wis. 2d 835, 578 N.W.2d 602 (1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 967 (1998).

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