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Private School Opts Out of Milwaukee Choice Program

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One of the private schools participating in the Milwaukee schools' controversial parental-choice program has pulled out, citing the wish to begin religious instruction at the school.

The school, Juanita Virgil Academy, notified the parents of the affected students of its decision during the first week in January, and the school signed an agreement of withdrawal with the state Jan. 8, said Gus Knitt, the state department of public instruction's choice program administrator.

Under the program, which began last fall, certain low-income parents were offered state-funded vouchers for the private education of their children.

The school's departure from the program leaves uncertain the educational status of the 63 students who, as of Sept. 21, were enrolled in the school under the program.

Mr. Knitt said school administrators had consented to assist in the transfer of records for those students wishing to attend public schools or to work out a way for the students to stay on without paying tuition.

Including the students attending the school under the choice program, Juanita Virgil had enrolled 127 last fall, Mr. Knitt said. A school administrator said last week that the current enrollment was 58.

According to David C. Begel, a spokesman for the Milwaukee public schools, about 20 Juanita Virgil students showed up at district headquarters Jan. 7 seeking reassignment. He did not know how many had ap8peared at neighborhood schools.

Mr. Knitt said school officials first raised the possibility that the school might withdraw from the program in December, as it neared the close of its semester. The school wanted to begin using the Bible in lessons for its K-8 students, he said.

School officials recognized that they would be violating the nonsectarian conditions of the choice program by introducing a religious curriculum, Mr. Knitt said, and they wanted to work out a solution with the department of public instruction.

Mr. Knitt said that the school had been considering the introduction of Bible studies for some time.

Because the state had paid out voucher money for just half the school year, Juanita Virgil's departure at the semester break means there is no need to reimburse the state for unused funds, according to Mr. Knitt.

The school's director, Barbara Grider, was not available for comment late last week.

This is not the first complication for the choice program.

In November, a state appellate court declared the choice program unconstitutional on a technicality. An appeal of that decision is now before the state supreme court. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1990.)

Throughout the legal dispute, the program has remained intact, and the state has pledged not to disrupt the education of children now participating, said Bambi Statz, an assistant state superintendent.

With the departure of Juanita Virgil, six schools are now participating in the program.

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