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Just two private schools in Dane County have signed up to accept students under the new statewide voucher program.

But there’s no guarantee Lighthouse Christian School in Madison or Westside Christian School in Middleton will participate.

Overall, 90 schools have told state officials they want to participate in the taxpayer-funded voucher expansion, and only the 25 schools or systems that receive the most applicants will be selected so long as more than 500 students sign up.

“I’m trying to call everybody that I know that might be interested,” said Tia Sierra, administrator of Lighthouse Christian. “We have to be one of the top 25 schools with applications to even make it. We’re really going to try.”

That just two schools in the county might participate means there will be limited impact on the Madison School District — at least for the 2013-14 school year — superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said.

“Rather than do a lot of work on opposing the voucher movement, we are going to focus on making sure our schools are the best schools possible and the schools of choice in Madison,” Cheatham said.

Michael Lancaster, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Madison, said he recommended that none of the Catholic schools apply because there were too many unanswered questions given the short application time line.

“We’ll continue to (seek answers to those questions) with the hopes of joining the program for 2014-2015,” Lancaster said. “We want to participate in vouchers, but we want to make sure we do it right.”

Parents can sign up

Gov. Scott Walker proposed the voucher expansion, and lawmakers modified it in the 2013-15 budget. It extends the existing voucher program — which currently is in Milwaukee and Racine — statewide starting this fall.

Starting Thursday, parents whose family income is 185 percent of the federal poverty level can sign up their children to receive a taxpayer-paid voucher of up to $6,442 to attend one of the participating schools.

For a family of four that’s $43,752, or $50,752 for a married couple with two children, under rules for the program Walker and the Legislature adopted.

The registration is all online and can be accessed at It ends Aug. 9 at 4 p.m.

Overall, there were 48 schools or systems that filed to join the program, including 24 individual schools, 15 school systems with between two and seven schools each, and nine schools from the Milwaukee Parental Choice program. The state Department of Public Instruction released the list of schools Wednesday.

If more than 500 students apply for the program, only the top 25 schools or systems with the most applicants will join. In that case, each school or system will enroll at least 10 voucher students and the remaining 250 enrollees will be determined by a lottery.

“We anticipate there being dramatically more than 500 applications,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.

There are 824 private schools in Wisconsin, including 44 in Dane County, according to the DPI.

Bender said many schools weren’t prepared to sign up for the program on such a short time line this year, but may do so next year.

Of the 90 schools that are seeking to participate, 66 are Catholic, 10 are Lutheran, eight are other types of Christian schools, three are Jewish, two are Muslim and one is Montessori.

Green Bay has the most schools registered with 10, though seven of those plus two in De Pere are grouped into three Catholic school systems. Appleton has seven schools that want to participate, Stevens Point has five and Eau Claire, Kenosha, Milwaukee and Sheboygan have four each.

Seeking to expand

Lighthouse Christian on Madison’s West Side, which opened in 2004, is a bilingual school where more than 60 percent of students qualify under the voucher program’s income limits, Sierra said.

Sierra said she told state officials she had 40 slots available for voucher students. Her school has 50 students and a total capacity of 70, so she expects many current students will sign up for a voucher.

Westside Christian, which opened in 2001, is a Lutheran school affiliated with St. Andrew Lutheran Church. The school has about 145 students and can house an extra 58, principal Hank Hobnecke said. About four or five current families would qualify for the voucher program, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to help serve more people,” Hobnecke said. “We’re not motivated by the bottom dollar at all. We’re motivated by providing a quality education and sharing Christ with the community too.”

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.