Educating parents about choice is essential
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Educating parents on the fine points of Wisconsin’s four parental choice programs is key to making sure they get their kids into a school that fits their family. Many Wisconsin parents may know about choice but not know the particulars of how to get into the programs.
Principal Megan Sagat introduced school choice at St. Peter’s School, a Catholic school in East Troy, five years ago. Sagat told ChoiceWords that educating parents about the choice program has been essential. “As that knowledge increases, our enrollment has increased.” Sagat calls choice a “game changer” for her school, which serves students in grades K3–6. She tells of students the school has served who weren’t thriving or were on the verge of being expelled elsewhere. “They started here and it was a completely different environment and they did great,” she said. “Without that ability to choose, that child wouldn’t have had a chance to be successful.”
Meanwhile, in the river town of Onalaska north of La Crosse, we find Onalaska Luther High and Principal Phil Punzel. Punzel’s no. 1 tip for schools is to host information meetings for parents, which Onalaska Luther does, promoting them through Facebook or direct mail postcards. Onalaska Luther High School will host its next school choice information meeting for parents on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Luther High School.
Punzel aims to get information about choice even to parents of kindergarteners. “They can use it (choice) for their elementary school, their middle school, their high school education.” Punzel said he’s proud of the results his school has seen bringing families into the program. “Your parents are your best allies,” Punzel says.
Along with the triumphs, Sagat has also seen heartbreaks at her East Troy school. The reason: restrictions the state imposes on the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program which, in some cases, have left students out of the program. Sagat says lack of portability (ability to go to a different school participating in choice if your family moves or your life circumstance changes), grade-level entry restrictions and the single, short enrollment period in the program have meant lost students.
Many school administrators, some featured in previous ChoiceWords stories, have told us families struggle with these barriers to the choice program. Administrators have related stories of families facing tragedy or hard life changes that rendered the choice program an impossibility — not due to the life changes themselves, but due to the unreasonable enrollment rules.
“You realize that you’re not the only one who’s struggling with it and that it’s a much bigger problem,” said Sagat, talking to ChoiceWords on a sunny day in East Troy.
Wisconsin has four school choice programs: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP), the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP, which operates statewide, outside of Milwaukee and Racine) and the Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNSP, which operates statewide). The enrollment period for the 2022–2023 WPCP went from February 1 to April 21, 2022. Sagat points out the discrepancy between the WPCP and the Milwaukee program, which has numerous enrollment periods throughout the school year.
“For a school like ours with 27 kids to 30 kids in the whole school, if school choice allowed us to have enrollment every month like it does in Milwaukee choice, it would give families the opportunity to, if they’re struggling, make the choice to move” to another school.
Onalaska Lutheran’s Punzel echoes the statements heard in East Troy.
“My biggest barrier with the Wisconsin program is the application window,” he says. Like Sagat, he wants numerous application periods, as seen in Milwaukee and also in Racine.
Another barrier is grade-level entry points. A student attending a private school without a voucher may enter the statewide choice program only in grades K4, K5, 1 and 9. So a family who misses the April deadline and does manage to secure financial assistance to send the student to the school for, say fourth grade, has to wait until ninth grade to get that student into the choice program.
The entry points will keep some students out of the choice program at a school even if the family’s income falls within the state limit for the program. Sagat cited a recent case of that at St. Peter’s, involving a family whose income changed after having another child. Because of the entry points, the family’s older child was left out of the choice program.
None of these complications are necessary. The state needs to stop throttling choice through overbearing regulations and bureaucracy.
Bottom line: The state needs to add additional enrollment periods for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. The state should also end the program’s grade-level entry points, which can prevent families from accessing the program for years.
— School Choice Wisconsin