LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - New numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction show more students are using publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools, including La Crosse's Aquinas Catholic Schools.
The Parental Choice Program began statewide in 2013. It allows families who make under a certain amount of money a year to receive a voucher to send their students to private school.
For example, a family of four would have to make less than $44,955 a year to qualify.
Because of where the money comes from, the program has implications for public schools as well.
"In today's education, choice is big,” Aquinas Catholic Schools president Ted Knutson said.
This year, Aquinas classrooms have more students taking part in the Parental Choice Program. Fifteen percent of the total student population, or 142 students, are enrolled, compared to 109 students last year.
"I think choice is really important for families and picking the right education fit for them,” Knutson said.
Knutson said of the 33 new students in the choice program this year, 14 were already enrolled in the Aquinas school system, and 19 are newcomers.
"It provides a school choice for them that's not available to them otherwise,” he said.
At Aquinas, Parental Choice Program students attend tuition-free. That's because this school year, private schools will receive a voucher payment of between $7,530 and $8,176 per student enrolled in the program, depending on grade level.
That money comes from the public school district in which the student resides.
"This is not a new thing in terms of having options in place,” said Randy Nelson, superintendent of the School District of La Crosse. “What is new is setting up a system whereby public dollars are flowing into private schools."
Nelson said the program can make budgeting difficult, and while the district supports parents having all choices on the table, he wants to make sure the playing field is even for private and public schools.
"I think it's not quite as fair as it used to be,” he said. “I think the biggest thing we have to be concerned about is how those options are used by some to segregate and separate students from schools. I think the important part of public education is: Public education includes everyone.”
Knutson said, at the end of the day, the program is about providing low-income families and students with another choice.
"Private schools are an option now for them, and so that's a good thing,” he said.
There is a 2 percent enrollment cap for the Parental Choice Program in any given district. In the School District of La Crosse, the cap is 135 students. Currently, there are about 80 students in the district enrolled in the program.
The 2 percent cap is up from last year, and will increase by 1 percent every school year until 2026, when it will be eliminated.
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