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Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Wis. Officials Spar With Private Schools Over Vouchers

Wis. Officials Spar With Private Schools Over Vouchers

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A recent dispute over voucher payments between the Wisconsin education department and a group of private Milwaukee schools could force the legislature to amend the state's school choice law, key lawmakers said last week.

Problems arose shortly after the start of this school year, when the department threatened to withhold payments from 13 private schools participating in the state's 10-year-old voucher program in Milwaukee.

At issue is whether private school operators must prove their institutions meet the department's definition of a private school before receiving state tuition-voucher payments for public school students enrolled in their programs.

In particular, department officials question whether private schools that serve only kindergartners or prekindergartners should receive funding.

"I don't believe that it is the intended policy of this state to shift public education monies to private day- care programs," state schools Superintendent John T. Benson said in an Oct. 9 prepared statement.

The department requires schools participating in the voucher program to prove they offer sequential curricula and at least 875 hours of instruction a year.

The schools in question failed to provide that evidence despite repeated reminders from the department, said Robert Soldner, the agency's director of school-management services.

Outside supporters of the private schools criticized the department for waiting until after classes were already in session to crack down on allegedly unqualified private institutions. They asserted in a letter to Gov. Tommy Thompson and the legislature that the problems stemmed from Mr. Benson's "abiding dislike for the choice law."

Lawsuit Threatened

The education department softened its stance after a lawyer hired by eight of the schools threatened to sue if payments weren't made immediately. Nothing in the law "places a burden on any school to prove to the department that it meets the statutory definition of private school," Milwaukee lawyer Gordon P. Giampietro wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to Mr. Benson.

Payments had been approved for all but one of the 13 schools as of late last week, prompting voucher advocates to renew their criticism of Mr. Benson and his department.

"How did 13 'unqualified' schools become 'qualified' so quickly?" said Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent and the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. "The short answer is that [the education department] botched the entire operation. Its flawed actions unnecessarily alarmed parents and damaged the reputation of good schools."

The oldest of three publicly funded private-school-voucher programs in the country, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program allows low-income children to attend private schools, including religious schools, at taxpayer expense. Participating schools receive $5,326 annual payments for each student.

This year, the state gave vouchers to 9,300 students to attend 113 schools.

After agreeing to pay the schools if they provided "at least minimal documentation" that they were indeed private schools, Mr. Benson called on state legislators to review the law and clarify the program's eligibility rules.

Sen. Richard A. Grobschmidt, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said the legislature would likely hold a public hearing on the issue early next year.

"This has become a policy issue for the legislature to consider," said Mr. Grobschmidt, a Democrat. "Certainly, common sense would require some standard for private schools to participate. Having kindergarten and early- elementary offerings in a day-care setting is not necessarily undesirable. The question becomes, 'Is it a school?' "

Rep. Luther S. Olsen, the Democrat who chairs the Assembly's education committee, agreed.

"If the [department] is having trouble deciding who should be considered a private school and who's just a day-care operator, we need to help them with that," Mr. Olsen said. "The [department] has to make these decisions, but when they have room for flexibility they can either go lenient or tough, and that's when we start to have problems."

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 28

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