In 2015-’16, Wisconsin was home to just over a million school-aged children. About 860,000 attended public schools. About 123,000 attended private schools: about 90,000 who paid tuition, and about 33,000 who used vouchers. About 20,000 children were home-schooled.
Vouchers are taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies that help children attend private schools, the vast majority of which are religious. In Wisconsin, the annual voucher payments will rise to about $7,500 per K-8 pupil and around $8,000 per high school student this fall.
To qualify for a voucher in the statewide program, students have to come from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 for a family of four or about $52,000 if the parents are married. The income limit for the Racine and Milwaukee programs is 300% of the federal poverty level.
Vouchers are different than charter schools, which are fully public schools that are privately operated, often by nonprofits. Charter schools receive freedom from some state rules and school district oversight in exchange for demonstrating higher-than-average student achievement, the terms of which are outlined in their charters, or contracts.
“School choice” refers to vouchers and charters and other options parents can choose outside their assigned neighborhood school. But vouchers are the most controversial because they usually support religious schools that don’t have to follow all the same rules as public schools. Private schools that accept vouchers are not legally obligated to serve all children with special needs, and they do not have to disclose all the same data as public schools.
Locally, Madison spends nearly $20,000 per student annually, despite tolerating long term, disastrous reading results