Problems Escalate at Voucher Schools

By Barbara Miner

Yet another voucher school in Milwaukee has run into financial and educational difficulties.

A group of parents and staff picketed outside the Woodson Academy in May, charging that the school is in disarray and students are not being properly supervised. Among the allegations were charges that volunteers from the local community college were running classrooms because of staff shortages. One parent also complained that second-graders were allowed to watch an R-rated movie. Seven of the school’s 10 teachers had left by April, after working without pay for more than two months.

School principal Dennis Alexander defended the use of college volunteers to run the classrooms, saying the students were merely reviewing earlier studies. “It’s not as if they’re being taught anything new,” he told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


The troubles at Woodson follow the abrupt closing of two other voucher schools earlier this year amid allegations of inflated enrollment figures and missing or fraudulent financial records. One of the closed schools, Exito Education Center, reportedly received an overpayment of about $90,000 from the state. The second failed school, The Milwaukee Preparatory School, may be obligated to return up to $300,000 to the state due to exaggerated enrollments, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. An audit could not be completed at Milwaukee Preparatory, however, because of missing financial records. Furthermore, the school’s founder abruptly left town in December. (See Rethinking Schools, Vol. 10#3.)

At a fourth voucher school, Medgar Evers Academy, administrators have admitted that the school’s staff has not been paid regularly and that the school faces severe financial difficulties.

The difficulties have increased concerns about the almost complete lack of regulation of voucher schools. Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee), a long-time supporter of the voucher experiment in Milwaukee, unsuccessfully sought to have the legislature pass regulations requiring voucher schools to have articles of incorporation, a board of directors and grievance procedures for staff and parents. The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Senate, however, unexpectedly adjourned in May without taking action on the bill, even though the House had passed the measure.

Fifty-seven more schools, meanwhile, have applied for the voucher program for the next academic year, 48 of them religious schools.

Legislation allowing religious schools to take part in the voucher program is currently on hold while the courts review the law’s constitutionality. The Wisconsin Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 in April on a suit challenging the program’s constitutionality, and the suit was sent back to the lower courts for trial.

Since the 1990-91 school year, Wisconsin has provided state dollars to low-income parents in Milwaukee attending nonsectarian private schools within the city limits. The program has so far been limited to a maximum of 1.5% of the more than 100,000 students within the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the 1995-96 school year, it gave vouchers of approximately $3,600 to about 1,100 children. Studies have not been able to document any noticeable improvement in the academic achievement of those at the voucher schools compared to students attending Milwaukee Public Schools.