A state audit released in February 2000 found that because voucher schools do not have to administer or report test results, it is impossible even to assess academic achievement in voucher schools.2 This is despite what former State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Benson has called "a compelling public interest in evaluating the educational outcomes of the program and reporting those outcomes to the legislature and the parents who are considering the program for their children."3 The Superintendent stated, "Taxpayers have no way of knowing if the $39 million in public funds going to choice schools this year is contributing to improved student achievement….If accountability is good and fair for public schools, and I believe it is, then I believe it is also good and fair for any schools that receive public funds."4 In February 2001, the Superintendent again urged the legislature and the governor to bring greater oversight to "a program devoid of any meaningful accountability."5
Nevertheless, the Wisconsin legislature eliminated all funding for data collection and evaluation in 1995 as it expanded the voucher program to include religious schools6 and has failed since then to remedy the problem despite the findings of the state audit and the recommendations of the superintendent. Governor McCallum's 2001 budget proposal in fact attempted to create an evaluation board that would have maintained the status quo with regard to lack of testing for voucher schools, but in addition would have been specifically prohibited from releasing any school-by-school test scores for voucher schools,7 even though public school scores are a matter of public record. The Joint Finance Committee unanimously rejected the Governor's proposal.8 Coupled with the lack of uniform testing, the result is that no comprehensive academic achievement data has been collected since 1995.
Voucher schools have attempted to avoid even the minimal accountability now provided by state law. The law specifically requires voucher schools to select students through a process of random selection to ensure that all eligible students have equal access to the program. However, when a number of voucher schools were charged by PFAWF and the NAACP with violating this law by giving preference to students of certain religions, illegally charging fees and requiring admissions tests, 17 of these schools claimed that the state could not enforce the law. The schools asserted that their private status and the alleged lack of appropriate regulations puts them beyond the reach of oversight and enforcement by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.9
According to the 2000 Legislative Audit Bureau report, nine Milwaukee voucher schools-about 10% of the total-"had no accreditation, were not seeking accreditation, and administered no standardized tests," whatsoever, according to the state audit.10 Alex's Academic of Excellence [sic] was temporarily shut down in 1999 after city building inspectors found serious safety code violations, including the absence of a fire alarm system and inadequate or padlocked emergency exits.11
In the 2000-2001 school year, the Sensas-Utcha Institute for Holistic Learning was denied funding solely because it had not obtained a school site. William Perry, the school's founder, claims he can read books simply by laying his hands on them, and boasts of a Ph.D. in metaphysics from the American College of Metaphysical Theology, whose website advertises Ph.D. degrees for $199. One parent states that Perry told her and several other parents that their children could stay home and not be marked absent because technically they were still "present." In spite of this, had Perry obtained a site and occupancy permit, DPI would have had no choice but to give him over half a million dollars, paid in four installments, based on an enrollment of 130 applicants.12 The DPI administrator who oversees the voucher program noted that "We are concerned about how public dollars are being used, but the [choice] law doesn't provide us with much oversight…When we do request something as simple as an occupancy permit, we get criticized for trying to undermine the program."13 Sensas-Utcha remains on DPI's list of schools receiving application materials and may re-apply for funding in the future.14
In May 2000, James Mitchell, chief executive officer of the voucher school Alex's Academic of Excellence [sic], was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to six months in jail. The trial revealed that he had been convicted of brutally raping a woman and holding a knife to her throat while his partner raped her as well. While on parole, he was convicted of burglary and later, telecommunications fraud. The principal of the school said he was not aware that Mitchell's criminal record included rape-under the voucher law background checks are not required for private school operators or employees. He confirmed that Mitchell had contact with the children at the school and recruited students. When asked whether he thought a convicted rapist should be around children, the principal replied "Let me get back to you on that one."15 Alex's Academic of Excellence remains in the voucher program to date and Mitchell continues as its CEO.16
In the 2000-2001 school year, DPI withheld funds from 13 voucher schools after some failed to document that they qualified as private schools teaching the minimum required hours of academic instruction as required by the voucher law. Other schools lacked occupancy permits demonstrating that their buildings meet health and safety codes and still others had failed to return overpayments from the previous year. Rather than laud DPI for safeguarding adequate academic quality and safety, voucher supporters harshly criticized DPI for being politically motivated. Nine of the schools threatened to sue; however, all subsequently provided DPI with adequate documentation and received their funds.17 Superintendent Benson subsequently requested clarification from the legislature, since many of the schools in question were believed to be part-time day-care providers rather than schools, and in fact had been daycare centers immediately prior to their entry in the voucher program.18 "I don't believe that it is the intended policy of this state to shift public education monies to private day care programs," he said.19
Corruption and negligence were responsible for the closing of four out of 18 voucher schools by the 1995-96 school year. Three of the four shut down mid-year amid charges of fraud and mismanagement.20 Two had inflated their enrollment numbers-upon which payment is based-and closed owing the state some $200,000.21 One school's director was convicted of two felony counts of fraud.22 Following this, voucher sponsor Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams offered legislation to authorize the Department of Public Instruction to inspect and audit schools.23 Nevertheless, voucher schools still do not have to comply with open meetings and records laws, hire certified teachers, or publicly release test score and attendance data.24
In the fall of 1999, State representative Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), a former Milwaukee School Board member, introduced a bill that would have required voucher schools to adopt academic standards and administer 4th, 8th and high school graduation tests. Private schools participating in the voucher program would also have to comply with the open meetings and public records laws that apply to all Milwaukee public schools.25 Pro-voucher legislators and lobbyists resisted these efforts and worked to block any votes on this legislation.
In May 2001, the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee, charged with making recommenda-tions on the Governor's 2001-2003 budget, rejected by a party-line vote of 8-8 a budget motion that would have required private voucher schools to utilize the same academic standards and take the same tests as public schools or develop comparable tests and standards of their own. A separate accountability provision of this motion would have required voucher schools to comply with open records laws to the same extent as public schools, and to provide public access to meetings of voucher school governing bodies.26
Subsequent to the Joint Finance Committee's vote, Rep. Sinicki convinced State Senate Democrats to incorporate her anti-discrimination and accountability bill into their budget package. These requirements would have required all schools funded with taxpayer dollars to follow the state's Open Records and Open Meetings Acts and to comply with statutes barring discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and more. However, these stipulations were omitted from the final version of the bill as negotiated by the conference committee.27