Wisconsin - Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

school choice

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”

  • 28,917 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

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 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.

Student Eligibility

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.

EdChoice Expert Feedback

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.

Rules and Regulations

  • Income Limit: 300 percent x Poverty
  • Prior Year Public School Requirement: None
  • Geographic Limit: District (Milwaukee)
  • Enrollment Cap: None
  • Voucher Cap: $7,954 (K–8) / $8,600 (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 bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education
  • Administer background checks for all employees
  • Teachers must have a bachelor’s degree from an 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 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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