History of School Choice

Foundations of School Choice Policy

Creating a school choice program was unheard of until a few courageous leaders fought to establish a parents’ right to choose their child’s education experience. Through the works of advocates such as Annette ”Polly” William and Howard Fuller, alongside then-Governor Tommy Thompson, America’s first modern school choice program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), was established in the city of Milwaukee in 1990.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

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The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was the first modern school choice program in the United States

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The MPCP was the first school choice program to allow for limited funding to follow the student to select schools through what is known as a voucher

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Initially, the program was first reserved for low-income students and exclusive to those living within the city of Milwaukee/Milwaukee Public School District

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Despite being quite popular with parents, the MPCP was immediately challenged in court after its passage in 1990

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The MPCP largely benefits minority students within the city of Milwaukee

How the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) Has Made a Difference

Legal Challenges to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

First Legal Challenge to MPCP

The first lawsuit against the MPCP argued three main points:

  1. Law violated doctrine that public funds may be used for only public purposes
  2. MPCP violated the state constitutional requirement that schools be as uniform as possible
  3. WI constitution prohibited legislature from passing a private or local provision as part of a “multi-subject bill”

Despite their challenge, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court denied a hearing on this case.

Subsequent Lawsuits against MPCP

Initially, only nonsectarian private schools were permitted to participate in the MPCP. However, after the passage of Act 27 in the 1995-1997 State Budget Bill, school choice was now extended to include religious schools.

This change in policy sparked multiple new lawsuits, claiming that this expansion violated the First Amendment of US Constitution, which implies a separation of church and state through what’s commonly referred to as the “Establishment Clause”.

Results of Litigation against MPCP

Despite many challenges to the law, primarily using the Establishment Clause as the key argument against the MPCP, the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the 1998 case “Jackson V. Benson” ruled 4-2 in favor of the program. While the litigants appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, their petition was denied – effectively making the MPCP the law of the land.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar program out of Ohio. Their ruling, which is known as Zelman V. Simmons, found that these types of choice programs did not violate the Establishment Clause and was indeed constitutional. This decision solidified school choice as legal under American law.

 

Choice Expansion since MPCP

Since the creation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, three other school choice options have been created within Wisconsin

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Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP); 2011

Program Requirements:

  • Student must live in the Racine Unified School District
  • Family income must be below 300% of the federal poverty guidelines, with an additional $7,000 allowed for households with married parents
  • Student must:
    • (1) be applying to grades K4, K5, 1, or 9, OR
    • (2) meet one of the following requirements for the prior school year: (a) attended a public school in Wisconsin; (b) attended school in another state; (c) were not enrolled in school (includes homeschooled students for the entire prior school year); (d) participated in the Choice program; (e) are on a Choice program waiting list.
  • Students applying to a school that is governed under an agreement by an existing Choice school governing board do not have to meet the above requirement for up to the first two years the school is in the program
  • All students must apply for the program every year and must meet program residency requirements
  • A student using a voucher whose family income increases beyond eligibility may continue to attend a private school using a voucher
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Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP); 2013

First state-wide parental choice program in Wisconsin. Requirements include:

  • Student must reside outside of the city of Milwaukee and the Racine Unified School District
  • Family income cannot exceed 220% of the federal poverty guidelines, with an additional $7,000 allowed for households with married parents
  • Student must:
    • (1) be applying to grades K4, K5, 1, or 9, OR
    • (2) meet one of the following requirements for the prior school year: (a) attended a public school in Wisconsin; (b) attended school in another state; (c) were not enrolled in school (includes homeschooled students for the entire prior school year); (d) participated in the Choice program; (e) are on a Choice program waiting list, OR
    • (3) are applying to the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and are on any prior year Wisconsin Parental Choice Program waiting list due to a school district enrollment cap.
  • Students applying to a school that is governed under an agreement by an existing Choice school governing board do not have to meet the above requirements for up to the first two years the school is in the program.
  • All students must apply for the program every year and must meet program residency requirements
  • A student using a voucher whose family income increases beyond eligibility may continue to attend a private school using a voucher
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Special Needs Scholarship Program (SNPS); 2015

This program is designed to help special needs students with additional funding in order to offset excess educational costs. The only requirement is:

  • Have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or services plan in effect.