Vouchers at the Local Level

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
By Kevin Murphy

 

West Side Christian School principal Hank Hoenecke knew his institution didn’t have a particularly high chance of being selected to receive newly expanded parental choice/voucher school funding.

His suspicions were confirmed earlier this month when a dozen new applicants to the school had filed by the August 9 deadline, a far smaller number than the private schools that made the cut.

“Looks like we’re going to have a long shot to qualify,” he said shortly before the results were confirmed. However, Hoenecke said he was still glad West Side Christian gave it a shot, and he believes the experience could come in handy as the state’s controversial commitment to voucher schools continues to grow.

“We’re definitely going to look into this in the future,” he said, “because they’re going to expand the number of vouchers. It was a short turnaround this yearcbut still a nice excuse for people to come out and see our school.”

Hoenecke said he doesn’t buy into some people’s fear that increased public money for private schools will drain resources away from public education in Wisconsin. “We’re not in competition with public schools, not here to take people away,” he said. “We support strong public schools as well.”

West Side Christian, located at 3815 Schneider Rd. in Middleton, is a preschool-through eight grade elementary and was established by St. Andrew Lutheran Church in 2001.

With the $6,642 state voucher payments limited to just the 25 schools with the most applications and 500 students statewide, Hoenecke knew all along the program might not add a large enough number to the 140 students enrolled at West Side Christian last year to secure more funds.

But the expansion of state funding for religious schools is something all educators are tracking.

“It could be a real blessing for people who can use a good quality Christian education who can’t afford it. Even if only one family participates, it’s worth it,” he said.

The school applied to the Department of Public Instruction after a family asked if West Side Christian would be participating, Hoenecke said.

While the school’s enrollment has been growing in the past few years, West Side looks at the  voucher program as one more way to serve Dane County’s west side, said Hoenecke, principal since 2006.

St. Andrew heavily subsidizes the school as the $4,000 tuition for full-day students doesn’t cover the nearly $7,000 the school spends per pupil, Hoenecke said. Church members receive a $1,000 discount.

After teaching two years in Madison public schools, Ashley Renstrom said her education in private schools made her feel at home as a first/second grade teacher at West Side Christian.

“Not being able to talk about Jesus in public schools and share what was shared with me was a reason I wanted to find a better place for me as a teacher,” she stated.

Teaching creation theory is very different at West Side Christian than it was in public school, Renstrom said. After learning what the bible says about creation of the earth, she took her class on a field trip to a geology museum for the “main stream” science estimates of the age of fossils. But in the end, “the bible is what we follow,” she said.

The voucher program was among the most controversial acts the Legislature approved this year because it transfers tax dollars to private schools though tuition credits to parents who enrolled their children.

The program is open to families whose income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of four with an annual income of $43,752 qualifies, and so do married parents with an annual income of $50,752 and two children, according to the DPI.

The private school receives a state aid payment of up to $6,442 for each eligible student. The aid is subtracted from the school district the student would have attended.

Like Hoenecke, Middleton-Cross Plains Area School Board president Ellen Lindgren, didn’t think the voucher program would have much impact this year on local schools. But it could in the future, she cautioned.

“I don’t think [West Side] will be one of the top [25] participants; … the larger schools will probably get the vouchers this year, … so I don’t anticipate a huge drain on our budget from the voucher program. But if they lift the caps, it would have an impact,” she said.

Hoenecke said he is more hopeful of getting some voucher students for the 2014-15 school year.

Hesitant to predict what the Legislature would do, Lindgren notes that voucher programs expanded in other states once they became established.

Lindgren said she respects a parent’s choice in what schools they want their children to attend. But she added that values and morals are also taught in public school, just “not in rubric of religion.”

Lindgren’s biggest complaint about the voucher program is that it funds two school systems in the state in an era of increasingly scarce resources. Also, while freezing aid to the public school systems, the Legislature increased aid by nine percent to voucher students.

The voucher program doesn’t adequately address how students struggling to acquire an education other than giving a limited number of parents a choice of where to send their children to school, she said.

“We do need to close the achievement gap for some low-income students, but the programs that have been proven to do that, year-round school, after school, and mentoring are the programs the state tells us they can’t afford to fund. Yet they say we can afford to fund a second school system,” she said.

The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District is a property-rich district, which means under Wisconsin public education funding formulas it sends more money to the state in property taxes than it receives back in state aid.

Still, Lindgren sees a high degree of local support for public education - more recently demonstrated in a 68 percent approval in a multi-million dollar referendum last fall.

 

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