Public, charter, private: What’s the difference?

Last updated on June 10th, 2022 at 12:04 am

With a publicly funded school voucher program dating back to 1990, Milwaukee is considered the birthplace of the modern private school choice movement. In addition to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows children to attend private – largely religious – schools for free, the growth of charter schools over the past 30 years and state laws allowing students to open enroll into neighboring districts offer parents several publicly funded options when deciding where to send their child.  

Many see the availability of options as good for families, and high-quality schools have certainly emerged thanks to the proliferation of charter and private voucher schools. Still, the school choice movement has generated much controversy, and early claims that a free-market-style educational system would prompt improved outcomes within Milwaukee Public Schools have largely not panned out, research indicates. And, on the whole, school choice has resulted in MPS educating a higher percentage of students with special education plans and behavioral challenges, as private schools are not legally bound to make the same accommodations to meet the needs of students with special needs as public schools and in some cases are permitted to dismiss students with repeated behavior issues. Hence, parents of children with special needs may have to look for an Online Special Education Program to ensure that their kids will receive the appropriate attention and education. 

Proposals to improve MPS have been floated over the years, both by those within and outside the district. The most recent, put forth by Republican lawmakers last month, calls for the dissolution of MPS and replacing it with multiple smaller districts in the city. The fate of that plan will likely be determined by the governor’s election this fall.

So, what exactly are the differences among Milwaukee’s school sectors, and how many students are in each of them? Let’s break it down. 

There are three main publicly funded options in the city: 

Milwaukee Public Schools: Traditional public schools governed by the MPS superintendent and elected school board. Secular and free for all students; some specialty schools limit enrollment. Must follow all federal and state laws/regulations applicable to public schools. This category includes instrumentality charter schools, which are staffed by MPS employees and serve students in facilities that are owned or leased by MPS. 

A breakdown of how many MPS students are enrolled in schools that are high-quality, low-quality, or meet expectations, based on state report cards.

Learn more about MPS by reading MPS Foundation executive director Wendell Willis’ Viewpoints: “Capturing our city’s economic growth potential hinges upon a well-supported MPS system.”


Public charter schools: Public schools operated under a special agreement with a chartering authority. Some area charter authorizers include the City of Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Milwaukee Public Schools. They are secular, free for all students and are legally prohibited from limiting enrollment. They can obtain exemption from certain federal and state laws/regulations for public schools. Those exemptions allow flexibility related to curriculum, textbooks, testing requirements, school schedules and union contracts. The tradeoff, supporters say, is more freedom to pursue more innovative teaching methods. 

A breakdown of how many Milwaukee students are enrolled in public charter schools that are high-quality, low-quality, or meet expectations, based on state report cards.

Learn more about the charter sector by reading Milwaukee Academy of Science CEO Anthony McHenry’s Viewpoints: “Supporting charter schools will improve life outcomes for Milwaukee children.” 


Private choice schools: Private schools governed by an independent entity, which may
be secular or faith based. Legally prohibited from limiting enrollment. Students receive publicly funded tuition vouchers. Schools are not public, and therefore not subject to most federal and state laws aside from health/safety regulations. Like charter school supporters, promoters of private choice schools argue the freedom from having to follow the same rules as public schools allows them to provide more tailored education to students. 

A breakdown of how many students are enrolled in private choice schools that are high-quality, low-quality, or meet expectations, based on state report cards.

Learn more about the private choice sector by reading Nativity Jesuit Academy president Vanessa Solis’ Viewpoints: “Each family deserves a choice, regardless of income, when it comes to educating their children.”


How many students attend high-quality schools in Milwaukee?

A look at school performance across the three main publicly funded sectors in Milwaukee, based on state report cards. High-quality schools “exceed” or “significantly exceed” expectations, per DPI. Low-quality schools meet few expectations or fail to meet expectations. 


Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, courtesy of City Forward Collective. Based on the 2020-’21 school year, the most recent available data.


This article is part of a BizTimes Media Business Cares special report on education in Milwaukee, examining the issues and challenges the community faces to increase the number of high-quality education seats in the city and to develop young talent and the city’s future workforce.

The report includes:

An overview from BizTimes Media co-owners Dan and Kate Meyer

An explanation of what the difference is between Milwaukee’s public, charter and private (voucher) schools, and how many students attend each.

These feature articles:

And, viewpoints from leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools, a Milwaukee charter school and a Milwaukee private (voucher) school:

Look for more education coverage in the coming days and weeks at

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