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Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Wis. Officials Flex New Power Over Milwaukee Vouchers

Wis. Officials Flex New Power Over Milwaukee Vouchers

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Wisconsin is clamping down on its program that allows private schools in Milwaukee to receive state-financed tuition vouchers. In the process, the state is wading into the debate over the role states should play in overseeing private schools that accept taxpayer money.

This summer, state officials denied 21 schools access to the vouchers, which provide about $5,900 per student in tuition aid for private and religious schools to children from low-income Milwaukee families.

The excluded schools did not meet the rules of a state law passed in March that requires new schools in the voucher program to submit budgets, obtain building and safety permits, and provide financial training for employees.

Beyond the new rules for schools applying to accept vouchers for the first time, the law also requires financial reports from the more than 100 schools that were already receiving the tuition aid.

In July, Wisconsin state officials used their new oversight powers to boot two private schools from the program. It was the first time that a voucher school had been banned from the program.

The new rules are Wisconsin’s first significant steps toward greater oversight of private schools that use the vouchers. But some leaders want the state to go much further.

"It’s a bare minimum," Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s deputy state schools superintendent, said of the new rules.

What’s more, sentiment has developed even among some private school supporters that some additional accountability may be appropriate.

Some state legislators, including school choice supporters, want additional safeguards such as criminal-background checks for employees in the participating private schools.

Oversight of recipients of state-sponsored tuition aid is also a concern for state leaders elsewhere.

In Florida, lawmakers this year failed to pass accountability measures for private schools that use their state’s school choice programs. No resolution was reached following debate on standardized testing and other proposals to ratchet up academic accountability for private schools that use state-sponsored vouchers. After two scandals erupted, however, Florida’s education commissioner put new financial controls in place. ("Supporters Debate Fla. Voucher Rules," Jan. 14, 2004.)

Wisconsin state Rep. Scott R. Jensen, a Republican who helped write his state’s 14-year-old Milwaukee voucher law, said school choice proponents in Wisconsin, Florida, and other states still are figuring out ways for private schools to be accountable for public money and academic quality, while staying free of too much regulation.

"I don’t think a consensus has yet emerged," he said.

Voucher Surge

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed a plan earlier this year to require criminal-background checks for employees in Milwaukee private schools using the vouchers. He said any plan to improve private schools in Milwaukee also should include help for public schools.

"Choice must be tied to more aid for public schools," said Melanie Fonder, his press secretary, explaining Gov. Doyle’s position. ("Milwaukee Voucher Schools to See Increased Accountability to State," March 24, 2004.)

Wisconsin also is seeing an enrollment surge in the voucher program that could force more changes in the law and an expansion of school choice in Milwaukee.

Voucher enrollment in Milwaukee easily topped 13,000 earlier this year. State officials expect the number to reach the maximum allowed under state law—around 15,000 students—in 2005.

That means Wisconsin legislators must raise the enrollment cap, eliminate the cap, or find a way to dole out vouchers under the cap.

"The program will crash if we don’t raise the enrollment, or eliminate the enrollment cap, because of the clumsy rationing system that is in the law," Rep. Jensen said.

Under current law, Wisconsin would set voucher-enrollment limits for each private school in the program. "Hundreds, if not thousands of children will be thrown out of the schools they love" if that provision isn’t changed, Rep. Jensen predicted.

A state education department proposal to give preference to students already enrolled in the voucher schools, their siblings, and kindergartners drew fire at a public hearing on Aug. 4.

"[State officials] have put forward a fairly reasonable plan for which there is no legal authority," Mr. Jensen said of the proposal.

Howard Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee school system, agrees that the enrollment cap for the voucher program should be lifted.

"With what we’re trying to do in this community, to educate all of the children, this cap is an unnecessary and also a damaging type of policy," he said. He added that he supports financial accountability and criminal-background checks in the private schools.

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 28

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