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Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Voucher Programs Pose Unique Set of Challenges

Voucher Programs Pose Unique Set of Challenges

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Of the continuum of options that make up the school choice movement, none puts as much faith in the free market as vouchers. Parents, the thinking behind such programs goes, should be the primary regulators, and government's job should be limited to giving families tuition aid that they can use at the private school of their choosing.

To proponents, the lack of government involvement is one of the most appealing aspects of vouchers. But critics say it can lead to situations like that of Alex's Academic of Excellence, a private school participating in Milwaukee's voucher program.

Two weeks ago, James A. Mitchell, the chief executive officer of the 9-month-old school, was sentenced to six months in jail for tax fraud. During the court proceedings, it was further revealed that Mr. Mitchell had been convicted of rape in the 1970s and burglary in the 1980s.

Although the tax charges didn't relate to the school—but to a group home for teenagers he once ran—Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Elsa Lamelas made clear how she felt the case reflected on the city's ten-year-old voucher program, which was enacted by the Wisconsin legislature. As reported in the local press, the judge said, "It seems that [the program] is easy pickings for people who are not inclined to be honest."

School choice proponents argue that such scandals are far and few between in the some 150 schools that participate in voucher programs nationwide. But some acknowledge that the Milwaukee incidents points out a need for greater oversight. Howard L. Fuller, who directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University in Milwaukee, believes voucher schools should be required to perform background checks on all employees.

At the same time, however, he also warns that adding too many new rules could prompt some otherwise good schools to quit the program.

"The more you start coming at people with all of these regulations, the more likely they will throw up their hands and say, 'We don't need this,' and then those options for kids will be eliminated," said Mr. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent of schools.

Hands-Off Approach

The three states where publicly financed voucher programs are up and running—Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have all tried to keep the rules affecting schools' participation to a minimum.

Private schools in Milwaukee can start accepting voucher students after doing little more than filing a letter of intent with the state and obtaining a building-occupancy permit. In Florida, teachers in schools that accept voucher students don't have to hold an undergraduate degree. Ohio has tried to tighten some of its controls on the schools taking part in Cleveland's program, but some of those efforts have faced resistance.

Following news reports that one of the Cleveland schools suffered serious building deficiencies and had allegedly hired a convicted murderer as a teacher, state officials announced they would no longer waive requirements that participating schools be "chartered"; in Ohio, that term refers to private schools that meet most of the same minimum standards as public schools.

All of the previously non-chartered schools in the voucher program have since either achieved such compliance or been dropped from the initiative, with the exception of one school, which is suing the state over attempts to expel it.

Critics of the chartering rule argue that the requirement is overkill—a thinly veiled attempt to hamper the program's expansion.

"It's really just being used as another shell game to make it more difficult for people to start a school that would accept vouchers," said David Zanotti, the president of the Ohio Roundtable, a public-policy group.

But others contend that states should actively monitor the schools in such programs, even if parents' decisions ultimately play the largest role.

"Evaluations are necessary to help parents become better consumers," said Scott Hamilton, a former associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Voucher programs, though, generally make few demands on schools to provide specific student-performance data—to either parents or policymakers.

The legislation that established Milwaukee's program originally required that participating schools administer specific standardized tests so the results could be used in an evaluation of the overall program. But state lawmakers removed that mandate in 1995 when they amended the measure to greatly expand the program and to include religious schools for the first time.

"We cannot get the most basic information out of the voucher program in Milwaukee—information about staff, about the training of teachers, about students, or about performance," said Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "You can effectively say—unless you're the most lunatic free-marketeer—that there is no accountability for Milwaukee's voucher program."

Mr. Fuller agrees that Wisconsin should sponsor more evaluations of its Milwaukee initiative. But he also says that doesn't have to mean mandating that participating schools administer specific student assessments. In fact, he said, he worries that if the state gets too involved in directing the operations of voucher schools, opponents of the program could rekindle their legal attack against it by claiming the state had created new entanglements between church and state.

"We're trying to find ways to give the public more information without it being done in ways that would destroy the program," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 19

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