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MADISON — The crash this week of the state Department of Public Instruction’s Private School Choice application webpage underscored the popularity of Wisconsin’s Parental Choice Program — and parents’ growing dissatisfaction with public schools.

But the “disruption” speaks to the broader problem of an agency and a governor committed to checking the growth of school choice, if not exterminating it. And that’s why a new legislative package of bills dramatically expanding the state’s storied voucher system is so important, school choice advocates say.

“Due to high volume, the system is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later today or the next business day,” DPI advised on the page Tuesday, in what was supposed to be the first day of the short window in which DPI accepts enrollment applications into state-funded voucher schools.

DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher said the agency is looking into what caused the “brief disruption,” but that it was fully operational on Wednesday. That didn’t seem to be the case Wednesday night.

“This is just another glaring example of how parents are denied access in opportunity,” said Jim Bender, lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin. “This complicated and complex enrollment process can be used if not to deny, then certainly delay, access to these programs.”

He said there have been computer glitches like this before. The bigger problem is the limitations and restrictions long placed on a pioneering school choice program that then-Gov. Tommy Thompson championed over 30 years ago. While the voucher system has expanded from a Milwaukee-only pilot initiative to four private school choice programs serving nearly 50,000 students, a lot of families remain locked out due to income, grade entry points, limited application and enrollment periods and other barriers.

The application period for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program runs through April 21. The February application period for the Racine and Milwaukee Parental Choice Programs ends on Feb. 21. Eligible applications received will be included in a random selection if more students apply than spaces available at the school, which is always the case. Applications are not accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“We need to get to a place where parents and families have control of the money and are not dependent on a bureaucracy to allow access,” Bender said. That sense of urgency is even more pronounced with a governor who served a decade as state superintendent of the DPI and who has proposed capping School Choice enrollment and putting it on the road to extinction.

School Choice everywhere 

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday rolled out an ambitious education reform package of bills aimed at effectively universalizing school choice and breaking up a Milwaukee Public School system that has failed generations of students. Gov. Tony Evers is sure to veto the bills, but its sponsors say they must act boldly to change the trajectory of K-12 education in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin has a reputation for reform. It’s time we regain our status as a national leader and innovator for education reform,” said Sen. Darling (R-River Hills), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “We are putting parents and their children first, we are going to increase transparency and accountability, and we will be funding students, not systems.”

The seven bills include:

  • Parental Bill of Rights — Establishes several parental rights relating to decisions regarding a child’s religion, medical care, records, and education, and creates a cause of action for the violation of these rights. Allows a parent to bring a lawsuit if those rights are violated.
  • School Choice Expansion — Opens school choice to all Wisconsin families by removing state enrollment caps, family income limits, and grade entry points – marking the beginning of true school choice for all Wisconsin students and families.
  • Milwaukee Public School Reform– Establishes by 2024, MPS will be divided into smaller community districts that are more manageable and accountable to parents and their communities. The new community district boundaries will be developed by a commission made up of elected officials with a vested interest in the community, including the Mayor of Milwaukee, the governor, and the state superintendent.
  • School Accountability Reports – Establishes uniform standards for school accountability reports. Wisconsin’s educational accountability system relies heavily on the state school and district report card. This bill improves the accountability reports to provide a consistent assessment of student success.
  • High-Performing Charter Replication and Creation of Statewide Charter Board – Charter schools are public schools that operate with less red tape. This bill will streamline replication for the highest performing charter schools in the state and will increase opportunities for more students and families statewide.
  • Property Tax Credit after Virtual School – Increases the school property tax credit for residents of school districts that are closed to in-person instruction for more than 10 days of instruction during the second half of the 2021-22 school year. Many working families were left last minute to find options for their children, and this money will help offset some of those incurred costs.

Thompson, who is soon to end his nearly two-year tenure as University of Wisconsin System interim president,  last week urged policymakers to bring School Choice to all.

“Why should there be restrictions on people having choice?” Thompson said Friday in recognizing National School Choice Week. Give parents control, he said, and they will “make the right decision, if the state gives the opportunity.”

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