Capping a legislative session that saw much spirited debate over Wisconsin’s school choice programs, Gov. James E. Doyle signed legislation last week that will subject private schools in Milwaukee’s voucher program to more stringent state oversight.
Prompted by recent problems at a few schools accepting voucher students, the law imposes new fiscal-reporting requirements on participating schools. It also lets the state schools chief immediately bar schools from receiving publicly financed vouchers if they fail to meet certain health, safety, and academic-performance standards.
“The signing of this bill represents a significant step forward in providing real operational accountability in the choice program, with clear consequences for failure to comply with specified requirements,” Elizabeth Burmaster, the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement. She said the measure “will go a long way in maintaining the financial integrity that taxpayers expect for use of tax dollars in the program.”
Under the 14-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, low-income families in the city can receive vouchers of roughly $5,800 to send their children to religious or secular private schools. More than 100 schools take part.
Gov. Doyle, a Democrat, signed the bill on March 16, the same day that he vetoed a companion measure that would have required schools in the program to conduct criminal-background checks of employees.
He also vetoed a measure that would have expanded students’ eligibility to enroll in the 10 charter schools in Milwaukee that were authorized by either the Milwaukee City Council or the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, rather than the district school board.
Reasons for Vetoes
In explaining his veto of the charter bill, Gov. Doyle said “any sweeping changes to the charter program should be accompanied with efforts to improve education for all of Milwaukee’s schoolchildren, whether they attend public, choice, or charter schools.”
Among other changes, the bill would have opened some charter school seats to out-of-town students and lifted a requirement that students in grades 4 or higher must first attend district-run schools for a year before entering nondistrict charter schools.
In vetoing the background-check bill, Mr. Doyle said he did not object to the screenings, but to provisions that he said would have exempted private schools participating in the voucher program from employment rules aimed at protecting workers from discrimination based on past criminal convictions.
But supporters of the bill said the schools needed the exemption to avoid having to keep or hire employees they deemed a risk to children, or otherwise undesirable after background checks.
“The choice schools said if you’re going to require us to go out and find out criminal backgrounds, then you have to give us the power to act on it,” said Rep. Scott R. Jensen, a Republican who chairs the education reform committee of the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house.