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updated: 8/16/2013 8:40 AM

2,400 plus Wisconsin students apply for religious school vouchers

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Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. -- More than 2,400 students applied to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend private religious schools, nearly five times more than the enrollment cap of 500, data released Thursday by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction shows.

The majority of those who applied, 67 percent, are already paying to attend private school. If they are among those randomly selected to get the voucher, taxpayers will pay for their private school education.

Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans pushed for expansion of vouchers, which currently exist only in Milwaukee and Racine, arguing it gives parents more choices of where to send their children.

Opponents, primarily Democrats and public school advocates, say the program is unaccountable to taxpayers and takes resources away from others that need it.

Given that only 24 percent of applicants came from public schools, the program amounts to nothing more a way to have public tax dollars diverted from public schools to support private education, said Democratic state Rep. Sondy Pope, of Middleton.

"I truly believe that this notion that our public schools are failing is fabricated to do exactly what has been done," she said. "Our public schools are not failing."

Still, backers of the program pointed to the high number of applicants this year as reason to loosen enrollment caps, which are already scheduled to double to 1,000 in 2014. There are no caps on the program in Milwaukee and Racine.

"The unfortunate reality is that nearly four out of five children will be rejected due to the restrictive cap," said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would push for greater expansion in the next state budget, which will be introduced in 2015.

Because the enrollment cap was exceeded, only 25 of the 48 schools or school systems that applied will be admitted in the program. All are religious schools.

There were 2,069 applicants for the 25 schools that will be admitted into the program. Each school will be guaranteed 10 vouchers each.

The remaining 250 students will be picked at random by DPI next week. Because of the random lottery, schools with more applicants have better odds of getting more vouchers assigned to them.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System in Appleton had the most students apply with 193. The Green Bay and De Pere area had four schools or school systems admitted to the program. Kenosha, Manitowoc, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and Wisconsin Rapids all had two each. There were 11 other communities with one school or system each.

Only 503 of the applicants attended a public school, while 1,393 went to private school last year. The rest were either not in school (101), home schooled (69) or coming from out of state (three).

The law as written does not give public school students priority in the lottery over those who are already in private school. Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature said their intent was to give public school students priority, and said they'll look at changing the law this fall. But that will be too late for the coming school year.

Father Dane Radecki, president of the Green Bay Area Catholic Education System, said only 80 of the 236 applicants from his district came from public schools. He said the focus should be on providing an option for low-income families, not whether they are coming from public or private schools.

Many families already in their schools may be receiving financial aid or barely affording the tuition, he said.

All applicants, regardless of attending public or private schools, must meet income requirements. Those are $43,752 for a family of four, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Married couples with two or more children can earn up to $50,752 and still qualify.

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