GLOBAL.School graphicAnita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Two schools in the Diocese of Superior are taking advantage of their new eligibility for the state’s private school voucher program.

Our Lady of the Lake, Ashland, and St. Anthony of Padua, Park Falls, will be enrolling students through the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program starting with the 2016-2017 academic year, according to diocesan superintendent of schools Peggy Schoenfuss.
The program, which is statewide, launched in Milwaukee 25 years ago.

“It’s the first year any of the schools in our diocese can have it,” explained Betty Swiston, principal at Our Lady of the Lake.

To qualify, families must meet income guidelines and students must be enrolled at a participating private school. One percent of students enrolled in a public school district can utilize the vouchers; in a district with 2,000 students, for example, 20 can receive vouchers to attend a participating private school.

The state typically pays public schools $7,200 per student; through the Parental Choice Program, that aid is sent to a private school, although the public school district still receives money for those students that is generated through tax revenue.

“Savings to the state and local taxpayers,” Schoenfuss observed.

Big benefit for families, schools

For Catholic schools, increased enrollment is an expected and appreciated outcome. But there’s an even bigger bonus for parishes struggling to support their schools – state aid would pay the student’s entire bill.

At Our Lady of the Lake, parents pay $2,000 in tuition and the parish subsidizes $5,200 per student, Swiston explained. With a $7,200 state aid check, “Their whole schooling would be covered.”

Another benefit to Catholic schools is the per-pupil cost of education is reduced when there are more students, she said; staff wages account for the bulk of the budget, so having a few more kids in the classroom reduces the cost of each student’s education.

“We are limited during the first 10 years of participation to the number of students we can accept from any one of our neighboring public school districts,” St. Anthony of Padua principal Steven Eitrem said in a press release announcing the school’s participation in the voucher program. “Under the guidelines which the state has set for the expansion of parental choice, we anticipate that many of the students accepted into the program in the first year will be students already enrolled at our school.”

Swiston, too, hopes to “find from within,” identify current students who can enroll through the voucher program, as well as young Catholics whose parents have been unable to afford private school.

“Then it would be free for them to come,” Swiston said, “plus it helps our school because we get a free tuition for them.”

Religious articles remain

One requirement of the voucher program is schools must accept all students, whether they are Catholic, Christian or not. Schools do not have to make any major changes to accommodate students, she explained.

“We don’t have to take out any religious articles,” Swiston said. “We’re not required to do any of that … they can opt out of religion or Mass, and we would have to provide them with other academic things to do.”

Schoenfuss invited a representative to talk about Parental Choice at a staff in-service, and she is encouraging readiness for participation in such programs among all Catholic schools, but Swiston said Ashland and Park Falls have an important reason for doing it.

The two towns have some of the highest free or reduced lunch rates in the diocese – 45 percent of all children in Park Falls are at or below the poverty rate, followed by 37 percent in Ashland.

“None of the other schools in the diocese have that many low-income kids,” Swiston commented. “So it behooves us to get this program going.”

“We feel an obligation to offer parental choice to families in our region,” said Mike Wade, chairman of the St. Anthony School Education Committee, in a press release. “Parental choice is now available statewide, and to not offer the program at St. Anthony’s would be a disservice to our community.”

High school

The other current project at Our Lady of the Lake is the pilot virtual/online blended high school. Two students enrolled at Regis High School, Eau Claire, are taking online and remote classes at the Ashland school.

Administrators from Regis Catholic Schools have trekked north four times, visiting parents and students, seeing where students are in their studies and ensuring their success.

Financially, the diocese’s first Catholic high school in decades is a work in progress. They’re not breaking even on it yet, Swiston said, “but it’s a start.”

For now, the voucher program does not apply for high school students, but Swiston hopes they can get the high school signed on for the 2017-2018 school year.