Wisconsinites embracing school choice

By MIKE NICHOLS | February 25, 2022

She raves about the Heritage Christian Schools in New Berlin where she and her husband have been able to send their two kids for the last nine years thanks to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

They love “the level of dedication to students doing well,” the curriculum, the “Christ-based education,” the way the school produces “children who are thoughtful and kind toward each other,” even the way Heritage is so fiscally responsible.

But the 44-year-old Milwaukee mother feels lucky for another reason as well.

They were accepted into Heritage through the School Choice program because back when their oldest was entering school they made less than three times the poverty level, currently $86,500 for a family of four. If they were applying today, they would be rejected because they earn more than they used to – though certainly not enough to pay full freight at a private school like Heritage.

“We would not qualify (today) and yet we don’t have a household income at the level that we could afford to send our kids to private school,” said the dance teacher.

There are three School Choice Programs in Wisconsin. Families in Milwaukee and Racine qualify only if they make less than 300% of the poverty level. The income thresholds to enter the program in the rest of the state are even lower – 220% of the poverty level. That’s $38,324 for a single parent with one child.

The average cost of a new car in America right now is $43,072, according to Kelley Blue Book – and that doesn’t include luxury models.

Americans with little kids aren’t driving new cars; many of them are taking the bus and working hard to earn a decent wage and they still can’t even come close to sending their kids to a private school and still pay their grocery bill and their taxes.

Most Wisconsinites realize that. Fully 65% now believe “income restrictions (on School Choice vouchers) need to be dropped so that every Wisconsin family has the ability to send their children to a school that’s best for them,” according to a new School Choice Wisconsin poll conducted by OnMessage Inc. of 700 likely voters in Wisconsin.

That’s a stunning number. Something has changed.

Wes Anderson, the pollster, has been asking questions like that all across the country for decades. He says recent results in Wisconsin are remarkable.

For years, he says, the more exposure people have had to School Choice in more places, the greater the support.

“Hesitation,” he says, “is followed by a pretty strong embrace and that happens everywhere.”

But what has happened over the last two years with the pandemic and concern about remote learning and growing parental awareness of curricula they don’t want, he said, “were a massive accelerant.” For the first time, the state appears to be “on the verge of mass acceptance” of School Choice.

There is overwhelming desire for more seats in better schools, growing support for giving parents rather than politicians the ability to use their tax dollars for an education they choose.

The mom in Milwaukee with whom I spoke is concerned about the limited number of seats available for Choice kids in some areas so isn’t sure whether income limits should be totally eliminated. But she thinks thresholds definitely should be higher.

I personally think we need to work to eliminate all limits on both income and numbers of seats. There are far too many people in the middle class who make what used to sound like decent money who – especially with inflation – can’t even come close to giving their kids a quality education.

The size of the pie should not be fixed. The number of seats can grow if all schools, regardless of the type, get the same funding and all kids, regardless of income, get the same opportunity.

The polling shows more and more parents want that opportunity for their kids – and more and more other Wisconsinites believe the right thing to do is to give it to them now.

Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.