Assignment: Education – Voucher eligibilty changes

Eligibility requirements for who can apply for vouchers are changing.

The Aquinas Catholic School System in the La Crosse area became one of the first 25 schools or school systems in Wisconsin to take part in the Parental Choice Program when it began in 2013.

“I’m an advocate for the program because I think it empowers parents,” said Tom Reichenbacher, superintendent for the Catholic schools for the Diocese of La Crosse.

Aquinas is one of the seven catholic school systems Reichenbacher oversees.

“We have 66 schools in the Diocese of La Crosse,” said Reichenbacher.

Thirty-two of those schools take part in the state’s School Choice Program. The majority of the students at those faith-based schools who received a voucher used the money to stay at their current school.

“That’s pretty much across the board, roughly 80 percent, give or take an area, but the students were already attending the Catholic Schools,” said Reichenbacher.

Starting next year, students already enrolled in a private school can only receive a voucher if they’re entering kindergarten, first or ninth grade in the current year. This is called ‘grade break.’

“Normally students are entering in at the kindergarten, first-grade or ninth-grade level,” said Reichenbacher. “So it is a natural break. So I don’t have many concerns for our schools that are currently in the choice program.”

But for private schools not currently in the program, the change in voucher eligibility may have a greater impact.

“The concern is that it now limits the number of students, that are in their school right now, who could be part of the choice program,” said Reichenbacher.

The superintendent says the change could be difficult because most of the current students can no longer apply for a voucher.

“So if you’re one of our small little catholic schools, you already have very limited numbers,” said Reichenbacher. “Now you’re saying only a couple of your kindergarteners or a couple of your first-graders can join the program … the cost is too much for them to actually join the program now.”

It costs private schools $600 to apply for the Parental Choice Program. The schools are also required to pay for and submit an annual audit of their finances to the state, which some private schools say could cost thousands of dollars.

“So they’re unable to join the program because the cost to be a part of the program is not offset by the number of students coming in,” said Reichenbacher.

In La Crosse County, several private schools are considering whether to apply to become a part of the Parental Choice Program in the future. Luther High in Onalaska is one of them.

“We are aware of that change in the program guidelines,” said Paul Wichmann, Luther High School principal.

Wichmann says his school will decide in May if Luther will apply for the Parental Choice Program for the 2017-18 school year.

“Some of the concerns we had to address, and are addressing, is our dependency on government funding to sustain our program of Christ-centered education here at Luther High School,” said Wichmann.

It’s a concern shared by the Catholic school system as well.

“Make your plans to use the choice dollars to benefit students,” said Reichenbacher. “But also make your plans so that if the choice program were ended we would still continue without any concerns.”

Despite changes made to who can apply for a voucher, the statewide program will continue to expand allowing more and more students the ability to take part in the program.

“I think the current schools will remain a part of the choice program and I don’t think it will limit them,” said Reichenbacher.