Families need more chances to enroll in statewide choice program

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♦ Life Happens: A ChoiceWords series ♦

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. This is the first in a periodic ChoiceWords series.

A Roncalli classroom.

Do you know in April what you’ll be doing in September? Do you have all the paperwork filed for those plans? Maybe. But we all know life happens and you don’t know what your situation may be six months from now.

Barbara Strawn

The reality that “life happens” bedevils parents in the statewide school choice program and those who want to get into the program, sometimes snarling life plans for years. The statewide choice program’s enrollment period runs from just February through mid-April, unlike at traditional public schools, where residents can stroll in at any time to enroll. Any parent who misses that window is out of luck; their kids won’t get a choice voucher from the state. That includes parents who were in the program the previous year, since parents must apply every year for the program.

So if you move to Wisconsin in early May and want to apply to a choice school, no luck. If your kid’s learning or social situation becomes challenging at the local public school and you realize it in June, no luck.

Choice school administrators lament the limited enrollment period. They fear they’re losing families who see the single, April deadline, lose hope and never even bother to contact the choice school.

“We need at the very least a summer application period,” says Barbara Strawn, director of finance and choice administrator for Roncalli Catholic Schools, Manitowoc, which offers grade, middle and high.

“We find that families who are looking at moving their children into the private school system are not making that decision between the first of February and the middle of April; they’re looking at how their student finishes out that school year at that time. Then in the summer, they’re digging into the issue, looking at options and deciding that there might be something better for those students. By that time, the application period is long gone.”

Another barrier facing families who want to get into the statewide choice program 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.

Strawn estimates that, for just students new to the school in 2022, Roncalli is losing more than $68,000 in the current school year and an additional $166,000 in subsequent years due to the entry point restrictions in the WPCP program.

“It’s a difficulty for everybody,” says Strawn.

Roncalli students in class.

“So many families who have approached us have said that in one way or another their previous schools were failing that student either academically or socially. When they are assured that the student will have a place in our school, the relief and joy are one of the true benefits I have of working in this school and with this program,” says Strawn, who’s a champion of choice and a new member of School Choice Wisconsin Action’s board. Seeing something that had seemed out of reach become accessible to families — “you can’t put a price tag on that,” she says.

See the open application periods for the statewide, Milwaukee and Racine choice programs here. The Milwaukee and Racine programs are separate from the statewide program and have more frequent application periods.

Parents and schools: Contact School Choice Wisconsin at 414-319-9160 or [email protected] with questions about school choice.

— By Mary Reardon for School Choice Wisconsin

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