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Lighthouse Christian in Madison

Kindergarten students including Silas Chhum, left, participate last fall in a lesson at Lighthouse Christian School in Madison. The state's voucher school program spends public money on his private school tuition.

Nearly three of every four students in the expanded statewide voucher program for 2014-15 were already attending private schools prior to this school year, state education officials announced Wednesday.

That’s consistent with data from the first year of the statewide program, when 500 students received taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private school. Under the program this year, about 1,000 students receive vouchers.

The statewide voucher program’s future has become a key issue that divides Gov. Scott Walker from his Democratic opponent Mary Burke, a Madison School Board member and former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive, in the Nov. 4 election.

Burke supports keeping the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine but has called the statewide program an “entitlement program,” based on the low number of students in it who were not previously attending public schools. Walker has backed the statewide program, saying it offers families a chance to find the best school for their children.

Burke said in an emailed statement Thursday that the expansion of the statewide program has “drained resources from neighborhood schools.”

“Diverting resources from neighborhood schools to fund a new entitlement program for students overwhelmingly already attending private school is the wrong approach,” Burke said. “Gov. Walker’s approach has weakened neighborhood schools and made a mess of the state budget.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Walker supports further expansion of the program, but wants to ensure there is capacity for expansion, so it may be on a limited basis.

“In addition, he wants any expansion to include an accountability bill for all schools receiving state funds,” she said in an email. She added that the program is intended “for students in school situations that aren’t working to be able to get into the best school option for them to succeed.”

The program is capped at 1,000 full-time students, including 4-year-old kindergarten students who attend school just part of the day. The statewide program exists in districts outside of Milwaukee and Racine, which have had programs for years.

To be eligible under state law, a student’s family income must be at or below 185 percent of the current school year’s federal poverty level. State law allows applicants from a family with married parents to add $7,000 to their family income and remain eligible. A family of four with married parents and two children could earn up to $51,718. A family of four with an unmarried parent is limited to $44,177 for the 2014-15 school year.

Of the new students that enrolled during the 2014-15 school year, about 19 percent attended a public school last year, 4 percent did not attend any school, 1 percent were home schooled and 2 percent were from out-of-state, according to the data. The program also saw 38 students who participated in the program last year drop from the program.

Madison’s only school in the program, Lighthouse Christian, has 10 students using vouchers — the same as last year.

Each private school participating in the program receives $7,210 for each student in elementary and middle schools and $7,865 for high school students.

School Choice Wisconsin said in a statement Thursday that the enrollment data released by the state Department of Public Instruction “only reveals a portion of the story.” The group said the program allows private schools to offer more scholarships to students unable to pay because of the voucher system, but did not provide data confirming the claim.

Wisconsin Education Association Council president Betsy Kippers, a Racine teacher, said in a statement: “Funneling tax dollars to create a separate and unequal private voucher school system takes desperately needed funding away from the majority of children in our neighborhood public schools. That’s unfair and it’s time it came to a stop.”

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.