Eau Claire (WQOW) - For the 2016-2017 school year 3,057 private schools are enrolled in the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, or as we commonly refer to it, the student voucher program. It's where income eligible families can send their children to a private school free of charge, and by free of charge, we mean free to them. You the tax payer is the one footing the bill.
Kathryn Hanson of Eau Claire sends two of her kids to St. James Elementary in Eau Claire using the voucher program.
"It's pricey going to a private school. It's pricey for one, and if you have more than one kid going, it just gets more. If we had to come up with $4,000 per kid, I don't know how we'd do it,” Hanson said. “I went to a private school growing up, and then I went to a public high school. I know just how hard a public school can be."
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the program started in the Milwaukee School District back in 1990. It then was offered in the Racine School District in 2011. In 2013, it slowly expanded across the state and is now being used in nearly 300 schools in Wisconsin.
However, not all families qualify for the program. According to the DPI, in the 2016-2017 school year a family of four would need an annual income below $45,000, a family of six would qualify if they earned less than $61,000 annually, and if the parents of a student enrolled in the voucher program are married, their income eligibility is reduced by $7,000 annually.
Regis Catholic Schools is enrolled in the program. The biggest school district they draw from is the Eau Claire Area School District.
"I think we're trying to run two systems, said Eau Claire Superintendent, Dr. Mary Hardebeck. “For us, we've struggled with our revenue cap and having enough resources for our students. And when we have to contribute to the voucher program, it takes money away from our students."
Right now, no district can lose more than one percent of their enrollment to the voucher program. Currently the Eau Claire Area School District has a student body of over 11,000 students. For the 2016-2017 school year, they lost 110 students to the voucher program, but losing those students doesn't reduce the operating costs for the district.
"It's not as if we're losing one classroom, because it's spread out throughout the district,” Hardebeck said. "So this year, we were assessed over 100 students for the voucher program. The problem is, they don't come in nice neat packages of 25. We still have to staff our schools in the same way. We still have the same operating costs that we always do, but yet we're losing revenue from these students and it's going to a private institution."
According to Mark Gobler, the President of Regis Catholic Schools, 80 percent of the students going to Regis on the voucher program were already Regis students.
"The funny thing is that a lot of those students never went to the Eau Claire Area School District,” Gobler said. “They were already going to Regis Catholic Schools."
When a student leaves the Eau Claire Area School District for a private school, it's money the district is losing as well. For the 2016-2017 school year, the DPI estimated state aid for a student on the voucher program would cost $7,323 for a student in kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,969 for a student in 9th through 12th grade. For the 2016-2017 academic year, the Eau Claire Area School District estimated they lost $513,000 thousand dollars in student aid because of the 110 students they lost to the voucher program.
Gobler doesn't think the entire blame for struggling public schools should be placed on the voucher program.
"The public schools have been hurting, not so much from the voucher program, just because of other cuts going through,” Gobler said. "At the recent referendum in the Eau Claire Area School District, they showed a pizza and how much was cut, which was very disproportionate to even close to what we get compared to the other local school districts.”
Of the Eau Claire Area School District's nearly $110 million annual budget, a half of a percent is going to the voucher program. However, the Eau Claire Area School District sees it differently.
“Well last year before the referendum we were operating at about a three million dollar deficit,” Hardebeck said. “And certainly, over half a million dollars of that deficit we could attribute to the voucher program."
Another concern for Wisconsin public schools is that in the 2017-2018 school year, a district can lose two percent of the students living in their boundaries to the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. Eventually that will hit 10 percent in 2025. For the Eau Claire Area School District, that could mean losing over 1,000 students and anywhere from $5 million to $8 million. The following school year, no limit will apply.
As for the Hansons, they said they'd probably send their kids to private school even without vouchers but getting that would help make it easier.