MADISON, Wisconsin—School choice in Wisconsin has come a long way since the late 1980s when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee led the national school voucher revolution. 
What began as a few private religious schools serving a few hundred public school children in inner-city Milwaukee has swelled to scores of schools reaching nearly 25,000 students—most among the poorest of the poor.
In 2012, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program  expanded into neighboring city Racine, where 11 private schools boast a total enrollment of more than 500 students. Racine private schools expect to open 500 more spots next year after state-imposed caps on voucher recipients expire, says Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin , the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parents’ right to choose their children’s education.
School choice has grown by leaps and bounds in Wisconsin over the past three decades, including the introduction of public charter schools and virtual schools, institutions not bound by the same rules as traditional public schools.
Students Learn More
While choice and traditional school advocates in other locales debate the potential merits of nontraditional K-12 education models, proponents of Milwaukee’s choice schools point to real achievement gains.
The School Choice Demonstration Project,  which tracked two grade-level peer groups in Milwaukee Public Schools and the choice program, found the latter posted higher graduation rates—76 percent to MPS’ 69 percent among students who began ninth grade in 2006. The difference was less pronounced for eighth-grade students of that year, with 73.7 percent of choice students graduating from high school, compared with 71.6 percent of MPS students.
Overall, the research found enrolling in private school increases the likelihood of students graduating from high school and enrolling and persisting in postsecondary education by 4 percent to 7 percent.
Cut Costs by Half
The choice program educates students at about half the taxpayer cost of Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee Parental Choice schools receive per-pupil vouchers of $6,442, compared to $13,239 in tax dollars per student who attend MPS traditional schools, according to School Choice Wisconsin.
A 2010 fiscal impact report on Milwaukee choice schools shows the state was able to redirect $74 million in aid to public school districts outside of Milwaukee, thanks to per-pupil cost savings at choice schools.
Those funding inequities are sure to be a topic of discussion in the state legislature’s education debate this session, which will focus on whether to further expand and better fund choice schools.
“We’re saying it does cost a certain amount of money to provide a high-quality education for children,” Brown said.
The school-choice advocate noted private schools aren’t asking for the same level of taxpayer funding the state gives Milwaukee public schools, but he said they would like to receive the same $7,775 per-pupil funding as the state’s charter schools. Brown said it has been a long time since choice schools have seen any aid increase.
“Given the fact that you have another school reform model in charter schools receiving significantly more money, you have to ask, ‘Is the child in a choice school worth less?’”
Mixed Charter Studies
Academic studies of charter schools have been mixed. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, argues a 2009 Stanford University study proves charter schools have inherent inadequacies.
“It was found that there are some very successful charter schools,” WEAC noted in an informational paper. “However, the authors report that … in the aggregate, students in charter schools [are] not faring as well as students in traditional schools.”
That assertion, however, cites a report that in reality shows 63 percent of charter school students were performing as well as or significantly better than students in traditional public schools.
National School Choice Week Energy
Although choice advocates have had their battles with public schools over the years, a host of players from the education community came together Jan. 30 to celebrate