Consider Wisconsin’s Successful and Popular Parental Choice Options For Virginia

Tommy Thompson

by James C. Sherlock

Heard enough about the decline of Virginia public schools to want to examine options?

Wisconsin is decades ahead of Virginia in parental choice. Their first law on public school open enrollment dates to 1975.

In 1993, Wisconsin completely overhauled its public school system to provide broad choices for those parents whose kids were locked into poor-performing schools and school districts.

The changes were led by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. The year after implementing the changes, Thompson was re-elected by the biggest margin in Wisconsin history.

All of these options remain so popular in Wisconsin that Democratic administrations since Thompson have not touched them.

And, yes, Wisconsin 4th and 8th graders outperformed their Virginia counterparts in both math and reading in the 2022 NAEP tests, with significantly lower learning losses.

We’ll examine all of the parental options in the Wisconsin program to see what Virginia might do that has worked there.

Public School Open Enrollment. Dick Hall-Sizemore commented on Jim Bacon’s article on the Youngkin Plan for reversing learning loss.

I have often thought of this scenario, especially when folks start talking about school choice. Let kids attend any public school they wish, notwithstanding jurisdictional boundaries.

That parental choice option has been available in Wisconsin since 1975; state financial aid has supported it since Governor Thompson’s overhaul in 1993.

The current law on full-time open enrollment is here. The law on part-time open enrollment, a child attending another district for a specific course, is here. State aid to this program and the others discussed here was established under Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican who served in that position for 14 years.

It allows parents to apply for their children to attend public school in a school district other than the one in which they reside. Here is the Wisconsin law on admission of nonresident pupils. Here is the law on school district cost sharing.

Parents are responsible to provide transportation to and from school in the nonresident school district, except that transportation required in a child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) must be provided by the nonresident school district. Either school district is permitted but not required to provide transportation. Low-income parents may apply to the Department of Public Instruction for reimbursement of a portion of their transportation costs.

This law, as with several others discussed here, was targeted at the 30% of the  state’s population that lives in the 5-county Milwaukee metro area. It was specifically designed to give parents and kids in Milwaukee’s terrible public schools a way out.

Charter schools. Wisconsin has a robust public charter schools program, also supported by state funding since 1993. For the 2022 school year, there are 241 charter public schools serving 50,822 students in that state. The law is here.

One defining difference between Wisconsin and Virginia is that Wisconsin law lists charter school authorizers in addition to school districts.

All of the following entities may contract with a person to operate a charter school:
a. The common council of the city of Milwaukee.
b. The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
c. The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
d. The Milwaukee area technical college district board.
e. Each technical college district board other than the Milwaukee area technical college district board.
eg. The chancellor of any institution in the University of Wisconsin System other than the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
f. The county executive of Waukesha County.
g. The college of Menominee Nation.
h. The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa community college.

The law even grants a charter school governing board authority to sue its authorizing school district in order to enforce the terms of the parties’ contract.

The lack of authorizers other than school divisions in Virginia assures that the ones we have will be few and shackled to the school division that authorizes them. For parents, that is really no choice at all.

Virtual charter schools. The Wisconsin law on virtual charter schools is here. Registration doubled in 2020-21 to over 16,000 kids out of about 850,000. Comparable numbers in Virginia using full-time virtual education in that same year were 17,000 out of 1,252,000. Twelve thousand of those were in the new full-time program of VDOE’s Virtual Virginia.

Learning loss. Wisconsin public schools evidenced little learning loss during COVID compared to Virginia schools.

The reading and math scores for both 4th and 8th graders in the two states showed the same trends. Wisconsin students finished ahead in all of them.

Most virtual charter schools are accessible by expelled students.

Private School Choice Programs. The Private School Choice Programs include the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the Racine Parental Choice Program (RPCP) and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program or statewide program (WPCP) (for students living outside of Milwaukee or Racine).

These programs allow eligible students to attend a participating private school in grades four-year-old kindergarten (K4) to 12. Schools participating in the program receive a state aid payment for each eligible student on behalf of the student’s parent or guardian. New Choice students must provide income documentation showing the family income does not exceed certain income limits.

State Superintendent interventions in low-performing school districts and schools. Another signature difference between Virginia and Wisconsin is that in Wisconsin the state superintendent is empowered to intervene in low-performing districts and schools. The law is here.

If the state superintendent determines that a school district has been in need of improvement for four consecutive school years, the state superintendent may direct the school board to make fundamental changes.

Virginia needs a constitutional amendment to make this happen here. We should pursue one.

State aid achievement guarantee contracts and achievement gap reduction contracts. School district contracts with the state Department of Instruction are tied to additional funding. The contracts are just what they sound like. The laws are here and here.

Whole grade sharing. This law is written in support of small school districts of which we have more than a few in Virginia.  

It permits the school boards of two or more school districts to enter into a whole grade sharing agreement that provides for all or a substantial portion of the pupils enrolled in one or more grades, including 4-year-old and 5-year-old kindergarten and prekindergarten classes, in any of the school districts to attend school in one or more of the other school districts for all or a substantial portion of a school day. 

Bottom line. Tommy Thompson was elected governor four times by the people of Wisconsin. After the education reforms of 1993, Thompson was re-elected governor in November 1994 with 2/3 of the vote. It remains the highest margin of victory in state election history.

The system Thompson created remains overwhelmingly popular in Wisconsin.

In 2022, Wisconsin 4th and 8th graders outperformed their Virginia counterparts in both reading and math in the NAEP test results.

Note that not only Wisconsin, but Florida and Texas performed significantly higher than the national average on 4th grade math. Virginia students did not.

In 4th grade reading, Florida students were second behind Massachusetts for highest scores in the nation. Wisconsin finished above the national average. Virginia finished below it.

Florida kept its schools open. It showed no learning loss from 2019 to 2022 in 4th grade reading. None. Funny how that worked.

Wisconsin offers model laws for lasting change in Virginia for those who want it.

Those that do not want change are focused somewhere other than on the best interests of our children.

Updated Oct 27 at 15:00.

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39 responses to “Consider Wisconsin’s Successful and Popular Parental Choice Options For Virginia”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    to add some balance …. on 8th grade reading…. Wisconsin is clearly better than Virginia but Virginia is equal to Florida and way way better than Texas.

    8th grade is obviously AFTER 4th grade but it is a better measure of attained levels of competency.. after years in school.

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Just more cherry-picking is all…

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Personally, if we wanted to “model” for Virginia to emulate, I’d look to the top 5 which includes DOD, Massachusetts and New Jersey not withstanding the laudable GOP hero Tommy Thompson…

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          You should, indeed, look at that. I provided all of the links.

          Get back to us with your analysis of the options those states provide which Virginia does not, which is the entire point of the article.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            easy analysis – start with the top 5 instead of just picking one better than Virginia with Charters and a Republican hero gov.

            If you’re gonna do one – do an objective one to start with.

            Why is DOD or Massachusetts better than Virginia, AND Wisconsin AND Florida AND Texas?

            what makes them the best?

          2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            My target was to provide as many successful state-sponsored parental options as possible for the consideration of Virginians. I consider Wisconsin the best source because of its wide range of innovations.

            But perhaps you can find one with more yet. As I said, get back to us.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            more options does not mean better.

            You did do your usual admirable thorough job but
            not a wholly objective focus IMO because you made the case for Wisconsin on NAEP results and not choices. You articulated the “choices” as benefits of the Wisconsin system but Charter does not necessarily mean better scores for low income kids. Charters are often targeted to higher performing kids – like TJ in NoVa and are in some states not accessible to low income kids even though they do not exclude, their programs are not oriented to helping low income kids perform (like Success Academies IS).

            The fact that Wisconsin kids DO outperform Virginia kids is a point in your favor.

            But as pointed out, quite a few other states also outperform Va kids that are NOT “charter”.

            Any truly objective discussion of what Va should do about it’s K-12 education SHOULD look at the best schools , not just “charters” or “choice” IMO.

          4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            I don’t need a “point in my favor” from you or anyone else. Re-read the title of the article.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            I thought this interesting:


            And it’s credited with being a major tool for homeschooling, private schools and blended public schools.

            But Conservatives in Va and this blog blamed virtual education for the NAEP shortfalls… in Va.

            But apparently a big success in Wisconsin especially during the pandemic.

            So we get some different messages here in BR, some of them even seemingly contradictory at times.

            One of the big court fights in Wisconsin was over the idea that the state was funding virtual education that home schoolers and private schools thought they should have access to and be able to use.

            In Virginia, where, now Stride is – it was available to schools during the pandemic right?

            Was it good in Wisconsin but bad in Virginia or what?

            It’s things like this that could shed more light on the issue – in an objective and non-partisan way.

            here are two key things in Wisconsin about Choice – that I would support in Va:


          6. LarrytheG Avatar

            See , THIS IS worth writing about:


            without worrying about whether it’s “Charter” or not or a GOP Gov or not … just the best school.

            Aren’t you the least bit actually interested in why and even more worth your time than writing partisan blather?

            With your significant skills and I do mean that as a compliment – why waste your time on cherry-picking and slanted commentary?

          7. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            You win Larry. You always outlast any author’s interest in dealing with you. I’m done.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        Thank you. Your comment pretty much settles it.

        Sorry I bothered to research the column and provide inquiring minds such as yours links to everything you could want to prove wrong anything in the article.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      The most critical measure of a child’s future success in school is his or her proficiency in reading and math at the end of the third grade. The 2022 results for fourth graders measure precisely the lost learning in grades 2 and 3.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I agree but most of the same schools at the top for 8th grade are also there for 4th grade and yes, Florida is there:

    3. sherlockj Avatar

      4th grade is the more critical predictor of future success for the students.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    and curious about this:

    what is the difference between Virtual Charter and just plain Virtual?

    If Virginia offers Virtual, how is that different from Wisconsin’s state level Virtual?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      The difference is that each charter school has a different charter from the various chartering authorities.

      Wisconsin has 63 virtual charter schools. Download the list.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        so each one separate with it’s own virtual software, not using a common platform like Virtual Virginia or the private one for Virginia?

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          Where did you get your statement about “each with its own virtual software”? You should be unsurprised to learn that Wisconsin DPI has technical standards.,and%20classroom%20resources.%20%28SEA%20Target%20for%20Wisconsin%20DPI%29

          The charter statements provide the mission and scope, and there are as many of those as the number of charter schools.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            re: ” The difference is that each charter school has a different charter from the various chartering authorities.”

            I took “different charter” to mean each was stand-alone with their own approach.

            So are they ALL using the same state-level virtual platform?

            Is it a State owned or a private company?

          2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            State technical standards for virtual education.

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            that’s an interesting criteria for virtual education.

    2. sherlockj Avatar

      Virtual charter schools each have different charters. Wisconsin has quite a few of them.

  3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    Maybe we can get a local Donda Academy… eh Ye?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s another thing. Sherlock is touting charter schools and other enabling regs as the reason why Wisconsin is better than Virginia.

    Fair enough but how about the states that do better than Wisconsin?

    Are they better because of Charters and other “better” regulation also, especially the ones that have unions and
    went virtual during the pandemic?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      You should conduct that study.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I admit that you are VERY thorough on your commentary , but you are also not exactly objective and tend too much to cherry-picking to suit your desired narrative.

        So I try to point out what you chose to ignore to give a little balance.

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Thanks for the summary. I do like the idea of a student being able to attend any pubic school in the state. I also like the idea of public charter schools, as long as they are open to all students.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I know of no public charter schools that are not open to all students.

  6. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    As a student of DOD schools for most of my formative years: accountability at every level. If I didn’t turn in a library book on time, it was reported to my father’s commanding officer.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      My father was a Marine for the entire time I was in K-12 but not every base had a DOD school and I ended up going to the local schools.

      Back then and today, different state schools follow different curriculums. So when we moved, I’d end up in a school that had a different curriculum. It would be covering some things I’d already done and not others that were to be next at the school I left.

    2. Teddy007 Avatar

      Most military family members do not attend DODEA schools. The DODEA schools seem like more of a legacy of the old segregated south along with foreign locations than anything else.

      Of course, why most people skip over is how bad school choice programs and charter schools are for military families. Image being transferred to a city where there are no open seats in any public school except for the afro-centric academy or being transferred when your children are in high school and one finds out that the charter schools or college prep schools only take students who are starting 9th grade.

  7. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Nice article. Wisconsin does charters right! Without a charter governing organization, it would look like Virtual Virginia!

  8. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    I visited Florida’s school for the deaf and blind. Any student in the state can attend without approval on an IEP as long as they meet the disability requirements. Over 600 kids as compared to Virginia’s 90+. Parents move to St. Augustine to ensure their child can go to the day school and not have to board. It is an unbelievable school with so many assets for kids. That is what choice is about!

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      is there a restriction of Virginia deaf and blin kids as to where they can go that Florida is different?

  9. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Seriously? Graphs with two data points?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Sherlock is _carefully_ constructing his narrative in support of his preferred path forward. All other “distracting” details are omitted…. 😉

      Tommy Thompson, Republican, Charter schools… heckfire … what more could one want?

  10. Teddy007 Avatar

    The white students in Wisconsin actually underperform the white students in Virginia. The only difference is that there are a lot more white kids in Wisconsin than in Virginia and thus, the aggregate NAEP scores are higher in Wisconsin than Virginia.

    This was mentioned over a decade ago.

  11. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Be warned. 15 of the 34 comments here so far as I write this are by Larry the G.

    He is somehow unable to file his comment and leave until the next time. He will never relinquish the spotlight. Seems to be some personal issue.

    Sorry other readers have to put up with him. I pledge to never answer another of his comments again.

    Hope others will do the same.

    We’ll see if that has any effect. I suspect he will just answer himself.

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