The Wauwatosa School District has a big investment in the open enrollment program. In a number of ways, these non-resident students are a sustaining force of Tosa's highly respected public education system.
It's all about the numbers. Of a total enrollment of just over 7,000 students, some 1,300 are here through open enrollment, or about 17 percent. Each one of those students brings his or her share of state aid, which helps make up the budget and reduces the district's reliance on property taxes.
Perhaps more importantly, the number of open enrollment students fills seats in classrooms, and that keeps school buildings open.
Wauwatosa has always prided itself as a neighborhood school community with no resident busing and an elementary school within about half a mile of every home. An attempt to close Wilson School a few years ago brought on such outrage it cost several School Board members their seats — and Wilson stayed open.
In an interview earlier this spring, District Superintendent Phil Ertl said that without open enrollment, Wauwatosa would probably have had to close as many as three elementary schools, one of the two middle schools and possibly even one of its two high schools.
So Ertl showed clear concern Monday when an education and governmental relations expert offered the School Board and district administration his assessment of the impacts of state legislation backed by Gov. Scott Walker to expand the choice school voucher program.
Up to now, said Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, state vouchers to pay for school choice have been available only to City of Milwaukee residents and only those living at below 175 percent of the federal poverty level.
"Originally, the choice program was to provide an opportunity to poor families to choose a school other than their neighborhood school," Rossmiller said.
"Walker's changes," he said, "mean that previous cap is gone in Milwaukee."
The new eligibility benchmark would be set at 300 percent of the federal poverty line, Rossmiller said, "raising the eligibility cap to about $64,500 a year (in income) for a family of four." He added that with the first $5,000 of income exempted, it really amounted to $71,500 a year, considered a fairly high living standard in Milwaukee.
So, what does that have to do with open enrollment in Wauwatosa?
"A consideration may be that in the choice program, you have transportation paid for," Rossmiller said, "whereas in open enrollment, parents have that responsibility.
"What impact that may have on open enrollment remains to be seen."
Ertl said that aside from the transportation issue, he was worried that raising the income eligibility level that high could siphon away open enrollment students whose families would suddenly be able to send their children to private schools.
"The fact of the matter is that statistically, students from higher income families are higher performing," Ertl said. "They would have many more options open to them."
Most open enrollment students in the Tosa schools do come from Milwaukee, but contrary to popular belief most are not low-income. Ertl said in the earlier interview that the open enrollment population here is broad and diverse both demographically and economically.
Wauwatosa has been a magnet for middle-income families who wanted to opt out of Milwaukee Public Schools but couldn't or didn't want to pay for private schooling. With school choice vouchers suddenly available to many of those middle-income families, open enrollment might not look as attractive.
"As superintendent," Ertl said, "I have concerns about the financial impact."