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Report Accuses Wis. Chief of Undermining Choice Program

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A new report by a think tank in Wisconsin accuses Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover of undermining the state's controversial private-school-choice program in Milwaukee.

The hard-hitting report also contends that state-directed efforts to evaluate the program have been biased against it.

The study was published last month by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative organization that has issued a series of reports in recent years critical of public schools in the state and supportive of parental-choice efforts.

The Milwaukee program, enacted in 1990, currently provides vouchers for about 600 low-income students to attend private, nonsectarian schools at state expense.

In the report, George J. Mitchell, a private consultant, says Mr. Grover has "failed to separate his personal disapproval from his sworn responsibility to implement the program effectively.''

He says Mr. Grover, who is charged with overseeing the experimental program, has thwarted it by not aggressively advertising its availability to parents.

Mr. Grover has openly fought the Milwaukee program throughout its history, arguing that it is a threat to the state's public schools.

The superintendent joined a court challenge to the initiative and, according to critics, has tried to weaken it through regulations. Most recently, he proposed a budget plan calling for an end to the program in 1995.

Moreover, the report says, Mr. Grover failed to appoint a "neutral observer'' to evaluate the program. The study is being conducted by John F. Witte, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Mr. Mitchell contends that Mr. Witte is not "neutral'' because his previous writings suggest a "judgmental'' view of parental choice.

In a 1990 paper, Mr. Witte criticized a study by John A. Chubb and Terry M. Moe that was widely praised by choice proponents.

That study, forming the basis of the book Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, suggested that student performance gained more in effective schools than in ineffective ones and that the factor that set those two groups apart was the degree of autonomy schools have from bureaucratic control.

Mr. Witte argued that the authors' methodologies were flawed and that they had failed to demonstrate that school choice would bring about substantial gains for students.

Research Flaws Alleged

The Wisconsin think tank's report also argues that there are flaws in Mr. Witte's first-year evaluation of the Milwaukee program. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991.)

The report says Mr. Witte's preliminary evaluation wrongly asserts that students in the choice program made no dramatic academic gains in their first year.

When compared with a similar group of public school students, the report says, the choice students made greater progress. The test scores of both groups were almost even after the first year because the choice students had slightly lower test scores before they entered the program, according to the report.

The new report also hits Mr. Witte and the education department for declining to share data until the study is complete. It contends the practice violates the state open-records law.

In response to the report, Mr. Witte last week defended his reputation as an unbiased researcher. "I have not engaged in debates on either side of the choice issue,'' he said.

He also said he would provide Mr. Mitchell with some of the data he requested, while warning that continued requests for such information could bog down the project.

"We have to sanitize everything so that no kid could be identified, and that takes time,'' Mr. Witte said.

He said the report was "very clearly a political hatchet job by a group that has a long history of political hatchet jobs.''

Mr. Grover also labeled the report a "hatchet job'' and said that political trends were running against the Milwaukee program.

"Choice is dead in this state,'' he said. "I just wish these people would wake up and realize they lost the [Presidential] election.''

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