MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Forty-eight private and religious schools throughout Wisconsin registered to be a part of the state's newly expanded voucher program, the state Department of Public Instruction said Wednesday.
Now the push will be on by those schools to entice parents to enroll their children. There is a cap of just 500 students next school year, and only the 25 schools with the most applicants can be in the program.
The voucher program, which lets public school students attend private schools with a taxpayer subsidy, currently operates only in Milwaukee and Racine. But Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature expanded the program across Wisconsin in the state budget passed last month, at a cost of about $10.5 million.
The schools that registered by the July 26 deadline come from 39 communities. Some have just one building while others operate many. For example, St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System in Appleton applied and it has seven buildings.
The 90 buildings covered by the 48 systems that registered represents about 11 percent of the 824 individual private or religious schools operating in Wisconsin. All but one of the applicants, the Montessori School of Waukesha, is a religious school.
The most interest came from Green Bay and neighboring De Pere, with six schools or systems registering there. The second-highest interest came from Sheboygan, where four registered. Two applied in Kenosha, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Waukesha and Wisconsin Rapids. Others interested were spread throughout the state including one each in Appleton, Beloit, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Rhinelander, Stevens Point and Wausau.
Supporters argue the voucher program gives parents whose children are in underperforming schools an alternative, while opponents say the private schools are unaccountable, take valuable resources away from public schools and are part of a broader agenda to defund public education.
"Schools that applied to participate in the statewide program completed an extraordinary amount of work in a very short amount of time," said Matt Kussow, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools.
"Students across the state will now have the opportunity to apply to a school where they can thrive," Kussow said.
No one knew for sure which schools would make the cut, but those that were trying have already held dozens of parent meetings and taken other steps to advertise the program, said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin. Those efforts will only intensify over the next nine days that parents have to enroll their children, he said.
"We are anticipating there being a significantly higher number than 500 students looking to enroll," he said.
If that happens, each of the 25 schools with the most applicants will be guaranteed 10 spots each. The remaining 250 will be randomly assigned. That will give the schools with more applicants better odds of getting the slots than those with fewer.
The enrollment period begins Thursday and runs through 4 p.m. Aug. 9. After next year, the cap increases to 1,000 statewide, outside of Milwaukee and Racine.
Nine schools operating in the Milwaukee voucher program also applied to be a part of the statewide expansion. If more than 500 students apply, those schools would not be allowed to be a part of the statewide program.
The voucher program has a long history in Wisconsin. It began in Milwaukee in 1989 and was the first of its kind in the country. In 2011, the program expanded to Racine and income eligibility levels for those two cities were increased to 300 percent of the federal poverty rate.
Income eligibility is tighter under the statewide program. Only families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $43,752 for a family of four, are eligible. Married couples with two or more children can earn up to $50,752 and still qualify.
The vouchers are $7,210 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,856 for those in high school.
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