Legislation Calls for Access and Accountability

A bill introduced in October by state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) seeks to increase access to the voucher schools by the public, including the media.

By Priscilla Pardini

“Reporters can go into any public school; it should be the same way for any choice school,” said Sinicki, a former member of the Milwaukee School Board. “What are they hiding? Are they afraid someone might not put choice in a good light?”

The bill subjects all schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, as well as charter schools, to the state’s open meetings and public records laws. Under those laws, which apply to all public schools, meetings of school-governing bodies must be open and most school records must be made available to the public. Current voucher legislation makes no such demands.

Steve Dold, deputy superintendent of the State Department of Public Instruction, said the result was “this gray area regarding just how forthcoming the schools are required to be.” Dold said the DPI supported Sinicki’s bill, which also requires voucher and charter schools to administer the same standardized tests required of public schools. “The department has long supported modifications in the program that would give us confidence that these schools are open and accessible, not just to children, but to all community members who might wish to better understand how these schools work,” he said.

Sinicki has also introduced a bill requiring voucher schools to follow the same anti-discrimination measures as public schools. (See related article. )

ACCESS TO INFORMATION

As Rethinking Schools recently discovered, getting specific information on the private schools involved in the Milwaukee voucher program is close to impossible. For example, this reporter made calls to 11 voucher schools requesting access to school buildings. In the end, only one allowed a visit. (See related article.)

Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a non-profit group that provides support to voucher schools, cautioned voucher schools against opening their doors to Rethinking Schools. Daniel McKinley, executive director of PAVE, agreed in a telephone interview that newspaper coverage “generally” helped increase understanding of the voucher program. But McKinley said he had advised voucher schools against speaking with Rethinking Schools because of the publication’s opposition to the voucher program.

Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, also refused to give this reporter access to Catholic schools receiving vouchers. He offered instead to meet with the reporter in his office to answer questions that were submitted in advance. Topczewski said the decision was based on archdiocesan displeasure with a previous Rethinking Schools article. (See Vol. 14 #1, Fall 1999. The article was written by Barbara Miner, managing editor of Rethinking Schools, and detailed her unsuccessful attempts to get information on the racial breakdown and test scores at Catholic schools in the program.

Topczewski was asked by this reporter if he would allow representatives from other publications to visit schools and observe classroom teaching. “I’d have to take it on advisement,” he said. He added that he had not had one such request in the approximately three years he had worked for the Archdiocese.

McKinley said he believed voucher schools should be held to the highest standards of accountability and noted what he called one important measure already in place. “What about accountability to parents, who are free to stay or move?” he asked. He said he also supported the “strongest fiscal accountability” for schools participating in the voucher program. He said he ideally would like to see such schools accredited by an independent agency, such as the Wisconsin Association of Nonpublic Schools.

Sinicki, who said she doubts her bill will pass, insists she is not trying to close down the voucher schools. “I just want to make sure these schools are using public money the way they are supposed to be using it.”