The largest network of private schools in the state's taxpayer-funded voucher system is closing its high school at the end of the school year after nearly 20 years in operation, school officials announced on Friday.
Milwaukee’s HOPE Christian High School opened in 2005 as part of a network that also operates six elementary schools in Milwaukee and Racine. Nearly all of its 3,400 students live in some of the most impoverished areas of the two cities.
All graduates of its high school have for 12 years been accepted to colleges — a much higher rate than for students overall in Milwaukee. In comparison, 46% of Milwaukee Public School graduates enrolled in post-secondary education within a year in 2017, according to the latest data available.
HOPE Christian officials cited a shortage of teachers and not enough state funding in announcing their decision to close the school.
"State funding has been significantly inadequate to support long-term high-quality outcomes at HOPE Christian High School, and over time, this challenge has only gotten worse with no end in sight," unnamed officials said in a press release on Friday.
"We do not believe we can provide the depth and breadth of offerings we desire for the high school at the current funding levels."
Board member C.J. Szafir said in an interview that the school building will be transformed into an additional K-8 school. He said school officials will help students and families find a new high school.
"We're all very upset," Szafir said. "We understand the impact that this is going to have on families but as we take a step back, HOPE's been such a pillar for their communities and there's a tremendous amount of good that our K to 8 schools are doing. And we're frankly excited about the ability to expand our K to 8 program to reach more kids."
HOPE Christian High School enrolled 265 students in the 2020-21 school year, according to state records. That's about half of what each of the network's elementary schools enroll.
Under state law, Milwaukee high schools participating in the voucher systems receive $8,946 per student — a 41% increase since 2005 when the payment was $6,351.
Szafir said there is more interest in the network's elementary schools than in the high school because some students prefer to attend high schools with more sports, extracurricular activities and advanced courses that he said the network cannot afford to provide.
"To be sure, this is a funding challenge we've always faced, but have reached a point where we see an opportunity to fill a need in the community and serve a greater number of families through our growing K-8 schools," he said.
Staff will be given a bonus to work until the end of the fiscal year and will be given the opportunity to apply for open positions, according to school officials.
Szafir, who is president of the conservative Institute for Reforming Government, said he hopes the event prompts lawmakers to make real efforts to overhaul how schools are funded.
"I certainly think there should be a bipartisan focus on how to tackle some of these major problems," Szafir said, referring to longstanding gaps in academic achievement between white and Black students in Wisconsin. "These are concerns that transcend party."
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed massive changes to how schools are funded when he worked as state superintendent, and as governor, to account more for students living in poverty, but those proposals were rejected by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
His plans also have called for freezing enrollment in the state's voucher systems, saying the state needs to allocate more money for K-12 schools in order to properly fund the private school voucher system and the public school systems.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee's HOPE Christian High School voucher program to close