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Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Complaint Lodged Against Private Voucher Schools In Milwaukee

Complaint Lodged Against Private Voucher Schools In Milwaukee

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Two groups opposed to vouchers have charged that schools in Milwaukee's voucher program have routinely violated the state law that governs the nation's largest experiment with private school choice.

Several schools participating in the program have been charging improper fees to voucher students, screening applicants, and discouraging parents from excluding their children from religious activities, according to the People for the American Way Foundation, a Washington-based group that is a leading national critic of vouchers, and the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

This school year, Milwaukee's voucher program will allow nearly 8,500 low-income students to use state tuition vouchers at 100 participating private schools, most of them religious. The 105,000-student district's program is now nearly a decade old and has included religious schools since 1995. ("Court Allows Vouchers in Milwaukee," June 17, 1998.)

Last spring, the two groups hired investigators from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, which monitors compliance with civil rights laws, to pose as parents of prospective voucher students. The investigators called a sampling of participating schools to ask about admissions, fees, and religious practices and found several apparent violations of the state voucher law.

For example, the complaint claims that an investigator posing as the parent of a prospective 1st grader was told by Blessed Trinity Catholic School--a K-8 school on Milwaukee's northeast side--that voucher parents were required to submit a "parent commitment statement," pledging that their child would participate in prayer and religion classes.

The complaint also says an investigator posing as a parent who called Marquette University High School was told that voucher students had to meet certain admissions requirements.

Armed with similar concerns about seven other participating private and religious schools, the groups filed a complaint Aug. 20 with the Wisconsin education department, asking the agency to take action to "put an end to illegal practices ... and to take other appropriate remedial action" at the participating schools.

"We believe that the voucher program is unsound and unwise, that it drains much-needed funds from Milwaukee's public schools, and that it diverts time and resources of those whose job it is to oversee and improve the public schools for the benefit of all children," the groups said in the complaint. "As long as the voucher program remains in effect, however, it is critical that the provisions of the voucher law intended to protect voucher students be fully enforced."

Lawsuit Threat

Charlie Toulmin, who oversees the voucher program for the state education department, said officials there were in the process of deciding how to respond to the complaint.

Judith E. Shaeffer, the deputy legal director of the foundation, the research and legal arm of the advocacy group People for the American Way, said she expects the state to bring voucher schools into compliance with state law.

State officials, she said, "have the ultimate sanction: They hold the purse strings." If the state doesn't act promptly, she added, "there's always the potential to bring a lawsuit to have the law enforced."

Daniel M. McKinley, the executive director of Partners Advancing Values in Education, or pave, a Milwaukee advocacy group that promotes school choice, said none of the participating schools had intentionally flouted the law.

"There are bound to be misunderstandings" in the first years of any school programs, he said, adding that some of the information school officials gave to the investigators may look especially suspect when taken out of context. "But what's really remarkable is that with 6,000 students last year, we never received a single complaint from parents about any of this."

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 5

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