Choosing a school? You’ve got options.
Each spring, parents face one of the biggest decisions they can make for their child’s future: What school environment will their child spend about 1,000 hours in next year?
Making that decision with confidence starts with knowing what options you have. In fact, you may have more school choices than you realize! Understanding these options can help you find a great school for your child. And remember, each child is different. So, a great school for your neighbor’s child may look different than a great school for your child.
Wisconsin families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, homeschooling, and microschooling and mix-and-match learning.
Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Wisconsin at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
- Traditional Public Schools
- Public Charter Schools
- Public Magnet Schools
- Private Schools
- Online Schools
Wisconsin Traditional Public Schools
As you know, most children in Wisconsin (and in America) attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. Did you know that, on average, Wisconsin spends $13,597 per public school student each year?
In Wisconsin, about 8.5% of public school students use public school open enrollment. Open enrollment refers to whether parents can choose to send their child to any public school in Wisconsin, regardless of where they live or where the school is located. Based on Wisconsin’s laws, a parent may be able to choose a traditional public school in another district. In some cases, families can participate in open enrollment within a district as well. For example, the School District of La Crosse has an intradistrict application form families can use to request a transfer within the district.
The application window for public school transfers is usually February to April, with another window in late summer for children who have experienced bullying and children who have recently moved to Wisconsin.
Parents are generally responsible for transporting their child to their public school of choice, but the receiving school must provide transportation if a student has a disability. Low-income parents may apply for state reimbursement for transportation costs. Districts are allowed to choose to collaborate to provide transportation, as well.
If open enrollment is an option for you, you can visit multiple public schools in your area and discover which is the best fit for your family. Traditional public schools aren’t all the same: They may differ in learning methods and one may just “feel different” than another to you. You can learn more about public schools in your state at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. You can also learn more about open enrollment at “Public Schools Without Boundaries: A 50-State Ranking.”
Wisconsin Charter Schools
Another public school choice for Wisconsin families are charter schools. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and usually have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they are allowed extra freedom to innovate with curriculum and learning methods and held accountable to authorizing bodies for results.
As of the 2022-2023 school year, Wisconsin families can choose from more than 230 public charter schools. Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing an outdoor learning program or offering a Native American language immersion. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system (like drawing random names out of a hat!) is usually used to determine admittance.
In 2023, Wisconsin signed a bill to increases the amount of funding that charter schools receive per pupil. You can learn more about charters at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s charter school page.
Wisconsin Magnet Schools
You can also choose magnet schools! These free public schools allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as engineering or the arts. Magnet schools teach all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. Wisconsin has several magnet schools scattered throughout the state. You can view some of these magnet programs, for instance, on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website. As just one example of Wisconsin’s magnet choices, Spring Harbor Middle School in Madison has an environmental studies magnet. A magnet school might be a good option if your child learns best by focusing on a subject they are passionate about.
Wisconsin Private Schools
Private schools offer a unique learning environment that may be smaller in size, pass on a specific religious tradition, or provide a different curriculum than is available in your district school. Wisconsin’s more than 900 private schools come in all shapes and sizes. The average tuition for private schools in the state is $4,083 for elementary schools and $8,481 for high schools.
While private schools do charge tuition, any Wisconsin taxpayer can deduct the cost of private school tuition. Also, Wisconsin students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are eligible to apply for the state’s special needs scholarship program, which can be used toward private school.
Additionally, Milwaukee students from families who meet certain income requirements can apply to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and students in Racine who meet similar requirements can apply to the Racine Parental Choice Program. Low-income students not assigned to the Milwaukee Public Schools or Racine Unified districts may also be able to apply for a private school voucher.
More than 52,000 students statewide use Wisconsin’s vouchers program to find a good private school fit! In fact, students participating in Wisconsin’s private school choice programs will soon receive a funding boost: A bill passed in 2023 increases the amount of funding that students receive in 2023-2024 and 2024-2025.
Wisconsin Online Learning
Don’t overlook virtual learning just because it is off the beaten track. It offers a uniquely flexible learning environment that meets a variety of family needs. Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try.
In Wisconsin, students can access several free, full-time online school programs. These include Wisconsin Connections Academy, Wisconsin Virtual Learning, iForward, and Wisconsin Virtual Academy. K12-Stride, the online education provider that powers Wisconsin Virtual Academy, also offers Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, a technical skills-based online school for students in grades 9-12.
You can find a complete list of virtual charter schools at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. As of 2023, there were more than 20 entirely virtual charter schools serving all grades K-12. For example, Bridges Virtual Academy is a virtual charter school that allows families to personalize curricular choices from approved lists. Note that in order for funding to follow a student to an online charter school, their family may be required to submit an Alternative Application through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Plus, many Wisconsin districts are developing or expanding their own blended, hybrid, or fully online options for families. The Green Bay Area Public School District, for example, has blended learning programs for all grades. Some districts, including 8 of Wisconsin’s 11 largest districts, partner with the Wisconsin e-School Network to provide their students summer school or part-time or full-time online classes.
For part-time classes, middle-school and high-school students in Wisconsin may also be able to enroll through their local public or private school in the state virtual school: Wisconsin Virtual School. There may be fees attached and you should connect with your school to learn more.
To read more about online learning in Wisconsin, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.
Wisconsin families can also choose to homeschool, which allows for high levels of customized learning and flexibility. Homeschooling is the process of parents educating students at home. All 50 states allow parents to homeschool.
In Wisconsin, it is required that you provide notice of your intent to homeschool by October 15, annually. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your public school so your student is not marked truant. In the case that you decide to return to public school, you should notify the school via form PI-1206 or by contacting the School Management Services Team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Placement is determined by each district individually.
The state requires homeschooling parents to teach certain subjects (like reading, math, and social studies) but does not require homeschoolers to take standardized tests. Note that homeschooled students in Wisconsin may still be eligible to participate in sports or activities at local public schools.
Wisconsin Microschools and Mix-and-Match Learning
Today, many Wisconsin families are mixing and matching school options to come up with new ways to personalize education. Microschools are one of these ways. A microschool refers to students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Microschools can take a variety of shapes and legal forms, from homeschoolers coming together at an enrichment center to a private school committed to small classrooms. What microschools share in common is a commitment to small-group learning, close-knit relationships, and an emphasis on children as individual learners.
Here are real examples of microschools and related resources in your state:
- Hickory Hill Academy is an innovative 10-acre private school that offers enrichment opportunities, like an afterschool environmental program.
- Acton Academy Madison West is a private project-based and learner-driven elementary school in the Acton Academy network.
- Kickapoo Valley Forest School, technically a public charter school, is an outdoor education program committed to an 1:8 child to adult ratio.
- Field Workshop in Greendale, along with the Greendale School District and Greendale Parks and Recreation, has launched a pilot program to offer enrichment learning for homeschool and virtual learning students.
Remember, microschooling is more a mentality than a specific legal distinction in most cases. Often, a family participates in a microschool while legally homeschooling, or being enrolled in a private or online school.
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