MADISON — Amid growing concerns about the quality — and radicalization — of Wisconsin’s public schools, the state’s parental choice programs are booming.
The latest enrollment numbers from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) show Wisconsin’s four private school choice programs reported a combined headcount of 48,919 students, based on the annual third Friday in September census. Enrollment in school choice schools jumped 6.6 percent from 2020.
Enrollment in 4K private school parental choice programs increased by 10.7 percent, while the kindergarten headcount rose by 5.1 percent, according to a review by School Choice Wisconsin, a parental choice advocacy organization.
Independent charter schools posted a 15.6 percent increase from September 2020, with a headcount of 10,691 students. The 4K and pre-kindergarten headcount rose 18.3 percent, with kindergarten enrollment up 15.8 percent, and first-through-12th grades welcoming 15.4 percent more students.
“The Parental Choice Programs and Independent Charter Schools in Wisconsin continue to be very popular with parents as shown by their dramatic growth,” said Jim Bender from School Choice Wisconsin.
Milwaukee’s parental choice program, a national pioneer in the private school voucher movement, saw a slight increase, with enrollment at 28,770 students. Racine’s program record a headcount of 3,940 students, up 2.5 percent from September 2020.
The most significant growth came in the statewide and the special needs scholarship choice programs. Statewide, headcount was 14,452 students, a 19.5 percent increase. The special needs program, which allows eligible students with disabilities to receive a state-funded scholarship to attend a private school, saw enrollment climb 24 percent over the year, to 1,757 students.
Nationally, enrollment in public schools over the run of the pandemic has plummeted by more than 1.1 million students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That unprecedented decline has much to do with what has been called the “lost year of education.”
An analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that schools that mandated virtual or remote-only instruction saw 4 percent declines in kindergarten enrollment and headcounts down by 1 percent in elementary grades. California, which has enforced some of the more stringent pandemic policies in the country, saw kindergarten enrollment last fall drop by nearly 12 percent.
Total enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools declined 0.6 percent to 813,448 students, according to DPI. That follows a 3 percent enrollment hit last year.
Madison Metropolitan School District’s September headcount declined by nearly 500 students to 26,313, a 2 percent drop, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
Anecdotally, a growing number of parents are pulling their children out of public schools that push radical indoctrination in their classrooms. In Madison, families have left public schools that were locked down for most of the last schools year.
“At a time of heightened awareness in K-12 education, parental options are more important than ever,” Bender said.