School Choice & Charters

New Tethers Eyed for Milwaukee Vouchers

June 12, 2009 5 min read
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Private schools participating in the Milwaukee voucher program would face a raft of new state mandates under a budget package winding through the Wisconsin legislature, from rules on standardized testing and minimum yearly hours of instruction to requirements that some campuses offer bilingual education.

At the same time, the plan would reduce the maximum size of individual vouchers for students by 2.5 percent, to $6,442 each year, a drop of $165 per pupil.

Proponents say the goal is to ensure more accountability for the secular and religious schools that enroll students aided by the state-funded program. But the plan has sparked an outcry from private school leaders and some voucher supporters, who say the demands are too burdensome and a back-door attempt to destroy the oldest and one of the largest tuition-voucher programs in the nation.

“They will let the program die a slow death through regulation,” said state Rep. Leah M. Vukmir, a Republican.

Divided Camp

Yet there is not unanimity within the pro-voucher camp.

Howard L. Fuller, a longtime leader in the voucher movement and the director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, said he sees much to recommend in the package that would strengthen the program, after the legislature’s bicameral joint committee on finance last month amended Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle’s initial proposal.

“What we have now is a compromise that is, in my opinion, significantly better than when the process started,” said Mr. Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools who has worked with lawmakers to modify the governor’s original plan.

Echoing a point others have made about uneven quality in the voucher program, he said: “There are still schools in the program that should not be in there.”

The proposal comes as both legislative chambers and the governor’s office are in Democratic hands for the first time since the voucher program was created in 1990. The program, which targets low-income students in Milwaukee, serves more than 20,000 students in some 125 schools.

The finance committee in late May—on a party-line vote of 12-4—approved its version of the state budget, and in the process made some changes to Gov. Doyle’s voucher language.

The $63 billion, two-year state budget package, with the voucher language included, was still being debated today in the state Assembly, with lawmakers aiming to have it completed by tonight. In fact, during a closed-door caucus meeting Thursday, Democrats agreed to amend the budget plan to lower the cap on the number of voucher participants to 19,500 from 22,500, though that measure may face strong resistance on the Assembly floor. The Senate was expected to consider the budget next week.

Strings Attached: Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle has been a driving force behind efforts to impose new state mandates on the Milwaukee voucher program.

Along with the proposed 2.5 percent drop in the maximum voucher value, general state aid to public schools would decrease by about 3 percent in the budget, to $4.65 billion during both of the next two fiscal years. School boards, however, could raise local property taxes to help lift per-pupil aid by $200 each year.

Voucher proponents note that the voucher amount is equal to about half the more than $13,000 in per pupil spending in the 85,000-student Milwaukee public school system.

New Requirements

The legislation as passed by the finance committee includes a range of requirements, from recordkeeping to public meetings and testing.

Participating private schools would for the first time be required to report their standardized-test results for all voucher students—by school and by grade level—to the state education agency, Mr. Fuller noted, as well as to parents and applicants to their schools.

Also, if the state develops new assessments for public schools under a timeline spelled out in the bill, the private schools would have to administer the tests to voucher students. (Currently, voucher schools must test voucher recipients, but the schools may select any nationally norm-referenced exam.)

Meanwhile, by the start of the 2010-11 school year, all teachers and principals in voucher schools would have to have a bachelor’s degree, though some current faculty members could apply for a temporary waiver. The plan also would create a new screening process for nonaccredited private schools wishing to join the program.

They will let the program die a slow death through regulation."

A last-minute addition that caught many observers by surprise would require participating private schools in which more than 10 percent of the student population had limited proficiency in English to offer a “bilingual-bicultural program” beginning with the 2010-11 academic year.

Parents ‘Furious’

That language has some private school leaders deeply concerned.

“Our parents are furious at these attempts to force bilingual education on their children,” said Terence J. Brown, the president of St. Anthony School of Milwaukee, a Roman Catholic school that employs an English-immersion approach that quickly brings students into classes taught in English.

Speaking of the proposed regulations overall, Andrew M. Neumann, the president of hope Christian Schools in Milwaukee, argued: “This bill is going to shift both time and dollar resources away from educating kids and into administrative positions.”

Susan Mitchell, the president of School Choice Wisconsin, a pro-voucher advocacy group, noted that state lawmakers in 2004 and 2006 approved two rounds of legislation to ensure better accountability for voucher schools, and she said the efforts are succeeding in weeding out bad actors.

The new effort seeks to “weaken the program,” she contended.

But state Sen. John Lehman, a Democrat who chairs his chamber’s education committee, said: “None of these efforts are trying to kill the program. They’re all improvement efforts.”

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association that has long opposed the voucher program and is a big proponent of tighter regulation of participating schools, called the compromise worked out by the joint finance committee a “good first step.”

“We believe that schools that receive public dollars need to be accountable to the people that pay those dollars,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as New Tethers Eyed for Milwaukee Vouchers

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