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Nearly a Third of Schools Found To Exceed Enrollment Limits

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An audit of the private schools in the Milwaukee school-choice program by the Wisconsin education department has found that nearly a third of the schools exceeded enrollment limits set by state law.

The controversial program allows low-income students to enroll in nonreligious private schools at the state's expense. It prohibits each school, however, from allowing those students to make up more than 65 percent of its total enrollment.

The audit last month of 16 of the 17 schools in the program found that five had exceeded that limit. Two of them, the Exito Education Center and the Milwaukee Preparatory School, have closed because of financial troubles related to the enrollment discrepancies. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996.)

The Harambee Community School, the Medgar Evers Academy, and the Woodson Academy also exceeded the enrollment limit, state officials said.

The 17th school participating in the voucher program, the Milwaukee Preparatory School, did not have its records available for auditors last month, said Greg Doyle, an education department spokesman. "But those records are now in the hands of the district attorney and will be reviewed," he added.

The audit results gave fuel to both critics and supporters of the program who have complained of a lack of accountability. State Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams, who introduced the 1990 bill that created the program, said she sees a need for the state to have more control over it.

More Oversight Sought

For example, though the five schools exceeded the enrollment limits, the law contains no provisions for punishing them or forcing them to correct the problem, Mr. Doyle said.

The department "is given no control by the legislature other than informing the school that they exceed the cap," he said.

Ms. Williams has introduced a bill that would allow the education department to inspect schools and conduct financial audits--powers that it does not have now. The law would also require participating schools to have a board of directors and bylaws.

"As new schools open, they need help and structure," Ms. Williams said last week.

State Superintendent John T. Benson agreed with Ms. Williams that more oversight is needed.

In a statement last month, he noted that the now-defunct Milwaukee Preparatory School may owe the state as much as $300,000, and the Exito Education Center may owe nearly $90,000, as a result of payments they received from the state for students they did not enroll.

"Wisconsin taxpayers," he said, "have a right to expect that their tax dollars are being used appropriately."

Defenders of the two schools, such as Ms. Williams, have said the discrepancies were due to poor planning, not deception.

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