MADISON, Wisconsin —
Four new religious private schools will be added to Wisconsin's statewide voucher program starting next year, the state department of Public Instruction reported Thursday.
More than 3,540 students have applied to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private and religious schools in the third year of the statewide program, more than triple the enrollment cap of 1,000, DPI said. That number is up four percent from last year. Gov. Scott Walker in his state budget has proposed eliminating the enrollment cap.
The four new schools added to the program next year will be Heritage Christian Schools in Brookfield, Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School in Jackson, Central Wisconsin Christian School in Waupun and Saint James Lutheran School in Shawano.
The voucher program is touted by its supporters as a way to help students escape poorly performing public schools. Opponents, primarily Democrats and public school advocates, say the program is not accountable to taxpayers and is part of a broader agenda to defund public education.
Jim Bender, president of the pro-school voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, said demand from students and schools interested in joining the program continues to grow.
"The more parents learn about the school choice program, the more they like it," Bender said.
Of the eligible student applications, 49.3 percent are already paying to attend a private school. If selected to receive a voucher, taxpayers will pay for their school education. A smaller number, 31.8 percent of applicants were students already enrolled in the voucher program. And 14.3 percent of applicants attended public schools last year.
The number of students applying from public schools decreased from 633 last year to 526 this year, a difference of 107.
Betsy Kippers, president of the statewide teachers union Wisconsin Education Association Council in a statement Thursday said the program was veering from its original purpose and taking too many taxpayer dollars.
"If politicians are truly interested in supporting all students in all communities, they should ... use those tax dollars to restore cuts to public schools," Kippers said.
The voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1990, the first city in the country to offer the taxpayer subsidies to help poor children escape struggling schools. Since 2011, Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature have expanded it.
All applicants in the statewide program, regardless of attending public or private schools, must meet income requirements. A single parent with three children can earn up to $44,828 per year. For a married couple with two children, the cutoff is $53,310 annually.
The vouchers, used to defray the costs of private school education are $7,210 for students through grade 8 and $7,856 for high school students.
Parents will be notified this summer, DPI said.
Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bydanaferguson