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Published in Print: February 16, 2000, as Positive Voucher Audit Still Raises Questions

Positive Voucher Audit Still Raises Questions

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A voluminous new audit of the Milwaukee voucher program has heartened supporters of the initiative, but also prompted renewed calls to increase state monitoring of participating schools.

The 174-page review, released this month by Wisconsin's Legislative Audit Bureau, primarily details the amount spent so far on the 9-year-old program, the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the children served, and the types of schools taking part. But it also points out that the state does not collect key pieces of information, including student-performance data.

"If accountability is good and fair for the public schools, why isn't it fair for the schools in the voucher program?" state Superintendent of Public Instruction John T. Benson said in an interview last week.

Mr. Benson added that the legislature should consider allowing him to give the state's assessments to students at voucher schools. Although he has been critical of the program in the past, his department is responsible under state law for administering it.

The Wisconsin audit comes in the wake of increasing complaints—many voiced by voucher opponents—about the oversight of school choice programs in Ohio. ("More Oversight Sought for Ohio School Choice," Jan. 19, 2000.)

Myths Dispelled?

The audit itself does not criticize the state-enacted program, through which nearly 8,000 Milwaukee students are attending 91 area private schools at public expense. The document offers only minor policy changes for consideration—none considered urgent, said Don Bezruki, the report's lead author.

"We only use the term 'recommendation' when we think there is a very strong or compelling need for a change, and this didn't rise to that level," said Mr. Bezruki, the director of program evaluation for the audit bureau, which carries out reviews of state programs at the request of the legislature.

Some observers said the audit dispelled many of the arguments made by voucher opponents. It found that participating students are, as the program's backers intended them to be, from low-income families who live in Milwaukee, and that the program's racial composition mirrors that of the city's public schools.

Those facts counter claims that vouchers favor "rich, white kids from the suburbs," said former Milwaukee Superintendent Howard L. Fuller, a voucher supporter who directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

The report also shows that funding to the local public schools has not diminished since the program began. Although the school district lost some state aid as its students moved to private schools, the city made up for the deficit, in part, by raising local property taxes.

But Bob Peterson, a 5th grade teacher at Milwaukee's La Escuela Fratney, said the review raised more questions than it answered. It didn't show how the vouchers had affected the demographics of individual schools, he said, or how many special education students were able to take part.

"The biggest problems are the omissions, not what's in there," said Mr. Peterson, who edits an educator-written newspaper called Rethinking Schools, which has been highly critical of vouchers.

Political Hurdles

Many of the concerns raised focus on student performance. As State Auditor Janice Mueller wrote in a letter to the state audit committee: "Some hopes for the program—most notably, that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement—cannot be documented, largely because uniform testing is not required."

Initially, the state did require voucher students to take state tests, but lawmakers removed the mandate in 1995 when they vastly expanded the program and included religious schools for the first time.

State law now requires that schools inform the state if they have accomplished one of the following: At least 70 percent of students advance one grade annually; average attendance is 90 percent; at least 80 percent of students demonstrate significant academic improvement; or at least 70 percent of students' families meet parental-involvement criteria set by their schools.

Most voucher schools also voluntarily submit to external reviews through accreditation by a private group or the use of standardized tests.

But some critics say that's not enough. State Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Democrat, has introduced legislation to require voucher schools to take part in state assessments. Although she doubts the bill can pass the Republican-controlled House, she said a companion measure to be introduced soon could have a chance in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority.

"At least this points out the flaws in the program," she said of the audit.

While agreeing that voucher schools should be evaluated more fully, Mr. Fuller said he feared that stricter rules could drive private schools from the program. Under a plan he has proposed to state education officials, voucher schools would not be forced to administer the state's assessments, but would be evaluated over time with a variety of measures.

Said Mr. Fuller: "My concern is that we don't do anything that would destroy the program."

Vol. 19, Issue 23, Page 3

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