Milwaukee Voucher Schools Close

By Barbara Miner

Two Milwaukee voucher schools have unexpectedly closed and two more are struggling to survive, leaving hundreds of children stranded at mid-year. The closings have fueled public concern over the voucher schools’ lack of accountability, and voucher supporters are increasingly split over how much to allow state regulation of the private schools.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, meanwhile, heard oral arguments Feb. 27 in a suit challenging legislation that would expand the voucher experiment to include religious schools. A ruling is expected by summer.

Critics of the voucher program have long argued that lack of accountability is a significant problem. Many voucher schools, however, have resisted regulatory oversight. The problem exploded in January when two voucher schools closed amid charges of financial irregularity and possible criminal activity.

Exito Education Center closed at the end of January and its director faces criminal charges of issuing $47,000 in worthless checks. The school reportedly received an overpayment of about

$90,000 from the state for students that were not enrolled at the school. Exito had reported in September that 174 voucher students and 90 non-voucher students were attending the school. An audit in January found that the school had 124 voucher students and no non-voucher students. By the time the school closed, it had only 61 voucher students. (By state law, only 65% of the students at the private schools may receive vouchers.)

Milwaukee Preparatory School closed in February, likewise plagued by questions about its enrollment and finances. An audit could not be completed, however, because of missing financial records. The school had received $315,362 from the state in payments for voucher students allegedly attending the school, but may be obligated to return up to $300,000 due to exaggerated enrollments, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. In September, the school said it had 175 voucher students out of a total of 200 students. By the time it closed in February, there were about 80 students at the school and 9 of the 12 teachers had left because they had not been paid. The founder, meanwhile, abruptly left town in December.

Two other voucher schools are facing possible closure due to financial difficulties. Administrators at Medgar Evers Academy said the school’s staff had not been paid regularly, while at Woodson Academy, the school’s teachers have been forced to take pay cuts.

Milwaukee Preparatory, Medgar Evers, and Woodson were all new schools that opened in September. Exito was formerly an alternative school, but the Milwaukee Public Schools did not renew its partnership with Exito because of contract violations, in particular falsified attendance and teacher certification records.

Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams (DMilw.), a long-time supporter of the Milwaukee voucher experiment, has proposed legislation that would strengthen accountability measures. The bill would allow the state DPI to conduct on-site inspections of schools and audit their finances at any time. It would also require voucher schools to have articles of incorporation, a board of directors, and grievance procedures for staff and parents. A number of parents have complained about fund-raising requirements and non-tuition “fees,” even though the voucher legislation states that the voucher is to cover all tuition costs. Some religious schools in Milwaukee charge as much as $750 in non-tuition “fees,” according to Williams.

Most controversial, Williams bill would require voucher schools to administer state assessment tests similar to those for public schools.

Calls for stricter accountability have caused alarm among many voucher supporters, particularly among religious schools hoping to take part in the program. Sister Monica Fumo, the principal of St. Joan Antida High School, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was particularly concerned about restrictions on registration and supply fees.

Gov. Tommy Thompson has apparently heard the growing public outcry over the voucher schools’ lack of accountability. In February he said he is also concerned about the financial viability of many of the voucher schools and supports increased regulation. He has also retreated from his support of vouchers as the key to reforming public education and acknowledged recently that a voucher plan “is not the silver bullet. It’s not the panacea.”

Wisconsin is the only state that provides public tax dollars for children to attend private schools. The program is currently limited to low-income children in Milwaukee attending non-religious schools, and provides vouchers to about 1,200 students.