Hold Voucher Schools to the Same Standards as Public Schools

In recent years, state legislatures and Congress have taken a variety of steps to make public schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers. But even though the Milwaukee voucher program diverts large sums of taxpayer funding to private and religious schools-$59.4 million this school year alone-these private schools are not being held accountable in the same ways as public schools.

Indeed, a double standard of accountability persists in Wisconsin, as voucher schools effectively avoid complying with laws or standards concerning such issues as financial disclosure, testing and anti-discrimination protections. The obstacles to admission that voucher schools present to special needs students are a good example of how private schools aren't playing by the same rules. While Milwaukee voucher schools cannot bar special education students from attending, they can and do turn their backs on such students by excluding special education services. In fact, the Legislative Audit Bureau found that only 8 percent of voucher schools reported that they offered special education services.7

Moreover, many Milwaukee voucher schools' own descriptions of their services clearly reflect the inability or unwillingness to serve students with physical or learning disabilities. A quick look at EPIC (Empowering Parents for Informed Choices in Education), an online Milwaukee school database for parents, provides insight into this practice. Under the section "Categories of Students Which School Cannot Serve," Harambee Community School reports that it has no special education teachers, making it "unable to service children with a learning disability, physical disability and emotionally disturbed [sic]."8 Gospel Lutheran "cannot serve wheelchair-bound students.9 " Blessed Sacrament writes: "Students who have severe emotional or behavioral problems need specific programs to assist them-we do not have a counselor or social worker."10 Other voucher schools have posted similar messages on EPIC.

To ensure that voucher schools are accountable to Wisconsin taxpayers in the same way that public schools are, State Senator Russ Decker has authored a series of measures that were approved by the Senate in its version of the budget. Beginning with the 2003-2004 school year, Decker's proposals would generally apply the same kind of standards and responsibilities to voucher (and charter) schools that currently apply to public schools. For example, voucher schools receiving public dollars would be required to adopt policies and procedures to ensure they do not discriminate in admissions or any other aspect of the school's program on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability.

Similarly, MPCP schools would have to adopt the same academic standards as public schools in math, reading and four other subjects, and would be required to administer, at certain grade levels and subjects, either the state tests or comparable tests developed by the schools themselves. These schools would also have to follow the same guidelines that public schools follow for deciding to include or exclude students in their testing programs due to disabilities, limited English proficiency, or other factors.

Finally, Decker's proposals would give parents and members of the public access to school documents and governance meetings in voucher schools-the same access that Wisconsin citizens now have to public school documents and meetings. Anyone who believes it is unnecessary to apply these rules to voucher schools should talk to parents at Harambee Community School, a Milwaukee voucher school. More than 100 parents whose children attend Harambee gathered at the school earlier this year to peacefully protest the failure of Harambee's board of directors to follow its bylaws on electing a school administrator. Harambee officials responded by calling the police. The voucher school's reaction stunned one community leader. "There were paddywagons," she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "and I couldn't believe they called the police on parents..." 11

On the Assembly side, State Rep. Christine Sinicki has been a leading advocate for ending the double standard on accountability. Other legislators should join her in supporting Decker's proposals ensuring that public tax dollars-whether they go to public or private schools-are not subsidizing practices that discriminate against students, withhold important information from parents, or undercut quality education in other ways. These proposals also deserve the support of Governor McCallum.

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