West Bend, WI – Earlier this year a Wisconsin judge ruled the Department of Public Instruction cannot deny private schools—including those taking voucher students—the opportunity to offer online courses and programs that count toward required instructional hours, just as the public schools do through virtual charter schools.
As a result, private Christian schools can now offer online programs for students anywhere in the state.
The first Christian school to announce such a program is Academy of Excellence in Milwaukee, which is the second largest voucher program in the state.
Suddenly lots of parents in Wisconsin are doing schooling at home—parents who never intended to do that. For many other parents, little has changed for them as it relates to the education of their children during the COVID-19 situation. They homeschool all the time—by choice—and are thankful for the opportunity to do so.
In 1983, after a pretty bitter battle involving the state legislature and the Department of Public Instruction, a private-school/homeschool law was passed. This law clearly defines what a private school is, including required number of instructional hours and what constitutes an acceptable curriculum, and also legalizes home education. That this law has remained virtually untouched for the past 37 years is nothing short of miraculous, and the home-education part of it is still one of the best in the country.
Homeschooling and traditional private schools are two of the educational options Wisconsin parents have today for the education of their children. Over the intervening years, we’ve added others, such as the nation’s first Parental Choice Program, known more commonly as the voucher program. This program allows parents who qualify to send their children to a private school, including a private religious school, using a voucher issued by the state.
Originally the voucher program was only in Milwaukee. Then Governor Walker and a conservative state legislature expanded it to Racine and ultimately to the entire state. This program has been hugely successful. The numbers of families taking this option has increased every year and research shows the students attending schools taking voucher students are generally out-performing their counterparts in public schools.
Another educational option related to public schools recently came to be and that is virtual public schooling. In my opinion, this program was designed to try to woo homeschool parents back to the public schools by offering them so-called “free” homeschooling. These aren’t private school programs; these are public school programs done at home—and come complete with all the required curricular choices and standardized testing. The students enrolled in these virtual public school programs are counted in the student enrollment counts, which is how school districts get their money from the state. The more students, the more money.
Up until this next school year, the virtual option has been available only to public schools. The Department of Public Instruction told private schools, many of which now are qualified to accept students through the voucher program, they were not eligible to offer their program virtually and have it count towards meeting the required instructional hours. The legislature could have changed the law but never did. Fortunately a lawsuit did what DPI and the legislature didn’t.
Earlier this year a Waukesha County Judge said it was illegal to block private schools from offering online courses that count towards hours and credits. This ruling forced DPI to change its policy. So what this means is Wisconsin parents now have yet another option for how they educate their children—they can do so virtually at home using programs provided by private schools—including private schools that take voucher students. Finally the playing field has been a bit leveled.
Academy of Excellence, a private Christian school in Milwaukee and the second largest private school in the state accepting voucher students, recently announced they are offering, beginning next fall, a virtual program, which will be available to all, including those who qualify for the state vouchers.
Academy of Excellence is unusually qualified and set up to do a virtual program, but I suspect eventually, a number of other private schools will join them. And I think we will see a number of parents take advantage of this option. One of the beauties of the virtual learning option is you can enroll in a program regardless of where you live in the state. For instance, families who live in rural areas of Wisconsin with no Christian school readily available, could enroll in the Academy of Excellence online program—and if they qualify for the voucher program could pay for it using a voucher.
Families who are interested in applying for any of the voucher programs must do so by May 14, the extended deadline for voucher applications. Application information is available at dpi.wi.gov
After experiencing kind of forced home-schooling during this virus crisis, some Wisconsin families might find they really like it but would be more comfortable with a regular virtual program should explore the new private school option, which is a reality thanks to an excellent private school/home-school law, a successful and proven parental choice program and a favorable legal decision.