2 Schools in Milwaukee Choice Program Close

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Two of the private schools in Milwaukee's closely watched school-choice program have closed their doors after a state audit showed they had misrepresented their enrollment figures.

The voucher program, which began in 1990, allows about 1,400 low-income students in Milwaukee to attend nonreligious private schools at the state's expense. The state provides $3,600 in tuition money for each student enrolled in the program.

The two schools, Exito Education Center and the Milwaukee Preparatory School, ceased operating earlier this month after an audit by the state education department of all 17 schools in the program, said Greg Doyle, a department spokesman.

The closings affected 356 students, many of whom have re-entered the Milwaukee public schools, although exact numbers were not available last week, a district spokeswoman said.

According to the audit, the two schools had collected almost $600,000 in payments from the Wisconsin taxpayers since the beginning of the school year. It was unclear how much of that money the schools may not have been entitled to, officials said.

Poor Planning

Milwaukee Preparatory reported it had 175 students who were entitled to vouchers, when it may have had as few as 20, the department reported. Exito Education Center reported 174 students enrolled in the voucher program, but the state audit counted only 124.

Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams, the state legislator who sponsored the original bill in 1990 that created the voucher program, defended the two schools. She said the differences stemmed not from deception, but from poor planning and high expectations on the part of administrators at those schools.

The state law that created the program allows for 65 percent of the students at a school to be in the voucher program.

Ms. Williams said that many of the schools in the voucher program, in planning for the current school year, counted on an expansion of the program that was passed by the legislature last year and signed by Gov. Tommy Thompson.

That legislation would allow a school's entire enrollment to be made up of students from the voucher program.

Legal Challenge

The expansion, which also would have allowed religious schools to participate, has been tied up in the courts.

A lawsuit filed in August by the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association is currently before the state supreme court (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995). A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27, said Richard Perry, a lawyer for the union.

Ms. Williams said that because the expanded program did not take effect, some schools did not get as much state money at the beginning of the school year as they had expected.

"These schools, just like any other business, have got to have their own start-up money," Ms. Williams said.

Vol. 15, Issue 22

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