School Vouchers and Christian Education

School Vouchers and
Christian Education

Chris Cody, Ed.D., Education Executive, South Wisconsin District–LCMS


In 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was created to provide an alternative private educational option to low income city of Milwaukee residents. With the introduction of this program, parents who would otherwise not be able to afford a nonpublic/parochial education could choose to attend a participating Milwaukee Parental Choice Program school. At the onset, this program served 300 students in the city of Milwaukee in seven nonpublic schools. In the 26 years since, the Milwaukee Parent Choice Program has grown to include over 25,000 students and 120 schools.

Parents’ preference for choice in their children’s education spread from the city of Milwaukee to other areas in the state of Wisconsin, eventually leading to the formation of the Racine Parental Choice Program and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. 32,260 students attended a private school in the state of Wisconsin through the use of a voucher during the 2015-2016 school year.[1], [2] This article will delve into the history of the voucher movement in Wisconsin, explore the legal and religious implications of the voucher program, and identify some of the challenges for a Lutheran school within a voucher program. Further, the impact and ramifications of the voucher program will be considered through a case study of a Lutheran elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

History of the Voucher Movement in Wisconsin

When looking at the history of the voucher movement in Wisconsin, a number of key points and people need to be considered in order to understand the voucher system in its current context. In 1989, a variety of factors, many of them unlikely, aligned at the right time to begin what would become the longest running voucher program in the United States. Primarily, these factors included political parties, community organizers, and leaders in both the public and nonpublic education sectors.

In today’s era of polarized politics where there is little gray area to debate or compromise to be had, it is noteworthy that in 1989, the start of the school voucher movement in the city of Milwaukee had bipartisan support. While this did not make the topic any less controversial, the beginnings of the program in Milwaukee were the result of normally opposing political parties compromising on the issue of educational choice. To be sure, the most vocal proponents of the school choice movement in Wisconsin and nationwide are Republicans. Yet, it was a Democrat state representative, Polly Williams, who originally proposed the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in 1989. To this day, Representative Williams is widely recognized as one of the founders of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

There was most certainly debate, and the parties involved did make compromises. Howard Fuller, a prominent national leader in the school choice movement as well as an integral leader in the creation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, details these developments in his book, No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform.[3]  The end result was the passage of the state budget that included the formation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. This program afforded state aid to low-income families so that they might attend a participating school of their choosing. Thus, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program started in 1990 with 7 schools and 337 students.

Of particular importance is that the original program did not allow for religious schools to participate in the program. Since its inception during the 1990–91 school year, the program has seen a variety of changes, many of which are quite controversial. In 1996, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was expanded to allow religious schools to participate which touched off a debate regarding the separation of church and state. The controversy over this inclusion of religious schools continued until 1998, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that families could use state vouchers at religious schools. The court decision effectively ended the debate on whether allowing religious schools to participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was a violation of church and state.

As a result of this 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, the number of students served and number of schools participating increased. At its inception, the program included enrollment caps. In 2005, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program raised the enrollment cap to 22,500 students. In 2011, the enrollment cap was lifted entirely, along with increasing the income guidelines to 300% of the federal poverty level in order to qualify for a voucher. In 2013, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program was created with limited seats available.

Clearly, the educational landscape has changed in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin since the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was introduced over a quarter of a century ago.

Legal and Religious Implications[4]

As previously noted, the school choice program in the city of Milwaukee is the longest running voucher system in the country. Having been in existence for 26 years, it has survived a variety of legal challenges, none more important to parochial schools in the state of Wisconsin than the 1998 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Jackson vs. Benson.[5]  At issue in this case was whether or not the expansion of the program to allow parochial schools to participate in Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was a violation of the First Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that it did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court further ruled that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program did not violate the “Public Purpose Doctrine,” a judicial expression of public funds being used for public purposes. The court affirmed that the public funds (vouchers) were being used for a public purpose (education) via private entities (parochial schools). Additionally, as it related to the Public Purpose Doctrine, the Court was tasked with determining whether proper regulations and controls were in place for private schools receiving the public funds. The court found that the program includes “more than sufficient control and accountability measures to ensure that the program serves the public purpose to which it is directed.”

Challenges for the Lutheran School

To participate in a voucher program in Wisconsin, a parochial school must abide by the program’s regulations and accountability measures. These regulations include the ability of a student attending a parochial school on a voucher to “opt out” of religious instruction and/or activities. It is of little surprise, then, that as leaders in Lutheran schools discuss whether to participate in one of the voucher programs, one of the first concerns raised is this “opt-out” clause.

This clause allows for parents/students to opt out of any religious activity that occurs during the school day. No doubt, schools must give the existence of this clause serious consideration. Can a Lutheran school truly be Lutheran if parents are given the option to remove students from religious activities, such as chapel? There is no solid data available that might help answer the question of how frequently this occurs. Anecdotally, this writer has only heard of the “opt-out” clause being used a handful of times. Yet, the thought that students could enroll in a Lutheran school only to be pulled out of chapel, choir, etc., is enough for many stakeholders to dismiss participating in voucher program altogether. This is part of a larger challenge for Lutheran schools in the voucher program. To what extent does a Lutheran school become bound to the State? Can a Lutheran school remain Lutheran while accepting voucher students?

The voucher program movement in the State of Wisconsin has challenged the Lutheran schools in other ways. These include, but are not limited to, the growing presence of students from low socioeconomic status households, the participation of increasingly non-Lutheran students, and the delicate balance of maintaining a Christian identity while operating under the regulations of the Choice program itself.

The Opt Out Clause

The clause to opt out of ”any religious activity” prompts the question, What is a “religious activity”? Lutheran theology is an incarnational theology. The Lutheran teaching minister includes God’s word in all instruction and activities. Because “religion” suffuses all our activities, opting out is not realistic. The clause is emblematic of a secular and confused perception of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular.

Any distinction about chapel, devotions, or Bible lessons being more “religious” than recess supervised with both Law and Gospel or language arts lessons that discuss stories in light of God’s word—any such distinctions are entirely artificial. But according to an opt-out clause, recess, story time, and discipline in a Lutheran school would be religious activities from which the student can opt out.

Two considerations: 1) The opt-out clause may be a pragmatic left-hand kingdom policy tool useful for getting a voucher system in place. 2) A left-hand kingdom precaution is that the clause may open the door to excessive regulation of the church’s right-hand kingdom ministries.

– Editor

The voucher programs in Milwaukee, Racine, and statewide have varying requirements for student eligibility, but all programs include an income level ceiling which families cannot surpass. Eligibility for a voucher in the city of Milwaukee requires an income level equal to or less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level.[6] To be eligible for a voucher in the statewide voucher program, the level is equal to or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.[7] As a result, Christian schools participating in the program face ever-growing numbers of students and families from lower socioeconomic conditions.

In 2015-2016, only 38 percent of students enrolled in Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod schools were identified as being members of a Lutheran congregation. [8] This is both a challenge and an opportunity to Lutheran schools. To this end, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in convention passed resolution 8-01A which sought “to encourage and strengthen the Lutheran ethos of our LCMS early childhood centers, elementary schools, and high schools.”[9] In essence, Synod has taken a firm stance to solidify what it means to be a Lutheran school as it enrolls larger numbers of non-Lutheran students. The delicate balance in this respect could best be summed up by considering this question: Are Lutheran schools a mission outreach focused on advancing the Gospel or an integral arm of the congregation focused on educating member families?

Case Study—Mt. Olive Lutheran School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

By the fall of 2007, Mt. Olive Lutheran School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the only Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod school in the city of Milwaukee that did not participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. In previous school years, the congregation considered joining the program, but concerns about the “opt out” clause had always resulted in the school not joining the program. However, in an effort to remain missional, the school created its own tuition-free program, called The Olive Branch, that allowed students who met all the criteria of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to attend Mt. Olive for free. In other words, Mt. Olive decided to expand its mission without having to be subject to government regulations. The congregation and school could set their own expectations and requirements for those who were attending the school through the Olive Branch program. Two features for students enrolled in their program were the weekly tracking of church attendance and that students not baptized were required to be baptized within the first year of enrollment.

In hindsight, the results of this free tuition program were predictable. First, enrollment grew from 115 in 2007–2008 to 140 in 2011–2012. Second, the baptismal requirements and church attendance requirements were rarely met. Theologically, the principal had issues with those policies.[10]  By requiring students to be baptized within the first year, the school had essentially turned the Gospel promises of baptism into law and placed a timeline on the Holy Spirit to work. Finally, the school could not financially sustain this program. For each student who was enrolled in the school through the Olive Branch program, the congregation was covering the overall cost of educating that child, approximately $5400. Additionally, the congregation was not receiving a voucher reimbursement for that child, which was approximately $6400. Thus, for each Olive Branch student, the balance sheet deficit for the congregation was close to $12,000 per year. Financially, the Olive Branch program was simply not sustainable without additional large amounts of gifts, tithes, and offerings.

While understandably leery about the government regulations, the congregation voted to allow the school to join the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program beginning with the 2012-2013 school year. By 2015-2016, the school was operating at capacity with nearly 190 students, of which around 140 were receiving a voucher to attend the school. Apart from the untenable financial situation for their Olive Branch program, what was the congregation’s reasoning for joining the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program?

  1. Many of the students who would be voucher eligible were already attending the school and also already attending Mt. Olive Lutheran Church. If the school began participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, these students would immediately and easily be transitioned into the program.
  2. For all practical purposes, the school was already operating as a Choice school—but not receiving the funds. The components of a Choice school were present such as access to alternate means of schooling, free tuition, and greater presence of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. By not receiving the funds, Mt. Olive Lutheran School was not able to meet many of the needs of these students.
  3. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was in existence already for 20 years by the time the school joined. Thus, the congregation had 20 years of history to analyze and consider the challenges of government regulation vs. the mission of the church/school.

The results of Mt. Olive joining the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have been primarily positive:

  1. With the additional funds, the school was able to enter into a partnership with a local Lutheran educational ministry—the Lutheran Special School and Educational Services—to provide a full-time special education teacher in the school.
  2. The school was able to employ a full-time school counselor to help provide social and emotional support for the students at the school.
  3. The church and school were able to extend a call to a Director of Church and School Music to bolster the music program and offerings in the school.
  4. The congregation was able to redesign the salary and benefits for the teachers. While by no means extravagant, this raised the salary of some teachers from 60 percent of the district suggested guidelines to the more typical 80 percent of suggested guidelines.

By joining the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Mt. Olive Lutheran not only survived, but thrived. Yet, challenges and opportunities still remain. Around 20 percent of the students at Mt. Olive do not have a church home. Additionally, there is a perception problem in many Choice schools including parochial schools that participate. It is usually veiled in code words and is rarely stated plainly: that students who attend on vouchers are minority students who have the most behavioral problems. And while the names of students who receive vouchers are to remain confidential, congregation members and others will often paint with a broad stroke based on the racial makeup of the students, making invalid assumptions. This Second Great Commandment challenge continues to exist for us Christians.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The idea of educational choice and using public funds for private and/or parochial education remains controversial. Yet there is little doubt that the voucher programs in the state of Wisconsin have enabled students to attend Christian schools who otherwise would not be able to afford them. Meanwhile, the voucher program footprint continues to grow nationwide, with 14 states currently offering some version of school choice.[11] Schools and congregations considering participation in voucher programs must be willing to consider how their Lutheran ethos would be impacted as well as opportunities that voucher programs may provide for outreach and service in their local communities.

Questions that congregations can consider:

  1. Are vouchers an excessive entanglement of church and civic affairs that tend to compromise the church’s ministry and foster strains of civil religion? Or do churches and church schools contribute to the general commonwealth and should have reasonable access to appropriate resources from the commonwealth to which we all contribute?
  2. From the body of the article: Are Lutheran schools a mission outreach focused on advancing the Gospel, or are they an integral arm of the congregation focused on educating member families? Could they be either? Can they effectively be both?
  3. There is no fictitious wall of separation between the church hall’s kitchen and the local health codes. The fire trucks do not stop at a wall of separation when the church school or sanctuary is on fire. To what extent can a voucher program be designed to sustain the autonomy of the church and the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment?
  4. As congregation members and God’s stewards, we pay the bills to make God’s means of grace freely available to any sinner who walks through the doors. The proclaimed Word and baptism are for anyone, member or not. We do not charge a fee for the Gospel. How should we regard and practice our stewardship of making the Gospel available and of teaching God’s word in our Christian, Lutheran school? High school? College?
  5. In what ways can a voucher program contribute to or impede (or both) the mission outreach of congregations and their schools to the local community?
  6. We do not compromise the Gospel. That said, in what ways can and should we cooperate with and work within the public square to serve all neighbors and keep the Gospel present and active in the lives of sinners?
  7. What items should be included in a study of whether to participate in a voucher program? What items should be on a study of how to responsibly participate in a voucher system?

[1] K-12 enrollment in Wisconsin public schools for 2015-1016 was 867,137 (see
[3] Howard Fuller, No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2014).
[4] For some general background on school choice and vouchers, see “A History of Private School Choice” by Dick M. Carpenter II and Krista Kafer, Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 87, Iss. 3, 2012.
[10] It should be noted that the author was principal of Mt. Olive Lutheran School from 2007-2015.

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