According to a 1998 U.S. Department of Education survey, almost 75% of private schools review discipline records in admitting students (including 85% of Catholic schools); almost half have admissions tests, and a similar percentage of Catholic schools give preferences based on religion.18 If private schools were required to accept randomly-assigned students (without regard to religion, academic achievement, special needs and more), interest in participation declines by half.19
In Milwaukee, the law requires participating schools to select students randomly-utilizing a lottery if applications exceed available spaces-to guard against discrimination based on race, geography, academic status, religion, and other factors. However, a 1999 PFAWF/NAACP analysis of schools' written random selection plans revealed that more than one third of the 88 participating schools were not complying with the law, and some had written plans granting illegal preferences to students based on religious, academic, and other grounds. For example, the Saint Alexander School's plan states: "New students to Saint Alexander's will be accepted in the following order: Siblings, Catholic Students from Saint Alexander's Parish, Catholic Students from other parishes, and then non-Catholic students" [emphasis added].20 DPI ordered all schools to delete such provisions from their selection plans in response to PFAWF/NAACP's administrative Complaint, although proceedings as to several schools' actual practices are continuing.21
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (an independent agency that investigates compliance with civil rights laws) conducted an investigation of voucher admission practices in August 1999 on behalf of PFAWF and the NAACP following PFAWF's analysis of voucher schools' written selection plans. It found a number of schools charging illegal fees, engaging in improper screening and selection of applicants, and violating students' religious freedom by discouraging parents from opting their children out of religious activities.22
Based on these findings PFAWF and the Milwaukee NAACP filed a second Complaint with DPI in August 1999 requesting that DPI to take appropriate action. In April 2000, DPI found "probable cause" that seven schools were in violation of provisions regarding conditions on pupil admissions and school fees.23 To date, it has settled with two schools, Nazareth Lutheran and Marquette University High School. The latter has agreed to change its application process in order to inform prospective voucher students that they did not have to take the schools selective entrance exam.
However, even Marquette's final agreement emphasizes that voucher students may jeopardize their chances of admission if they do not take the entrance exam: "Among those rights for a student applying solely under the low income Choice program is the ability to avoid items 2 through 5 [the entrance exams] above. However, a student applying solely under the low income Choice program may have a lower chance of admission. Low-income parents wishing to maximize their son's chances of admissions will want to apply under both processes" [emphasis added].24 DPI's conciliation efforts with the other schools are still pending.
Approximately 1,900 students disappeared from the Milwaukee voucher program in the 2000-01 school year-about 24% of total enrollment. No information about those students is available because no one has to track these students' reasons for leaving. Total enrollment in the voucher program for the 1999-2000 school year was 7,913.25 Yet the number of voucher students returning this year (2000-01) was only 5,790.26 Allowing for the small number of students graduating from high school,27 approximately 1,900 students either left or had been asked to leave. This is not only a high attrition rate-it also points to the problems with a system in which schools do not have to report whether and why they have dropped students from their rolls. Prior to the legislature's elimination of funding for evaluation, attrition rates for the program were between 23% and 44% in the first five years.28
In Florida, many private school administrators stated that they would be reluctant to accept voucher students, citing lack of space and the inadequacy of the voucher amount as reasons for concern. Many schools have waiting lists and doubt there will be room for public school students.29 The Florida Catholic Conference education coordinator noted that statewide, "a lot of schools are near or at capacity."30 State Rep. Carlos Lacasa (R-Miami), who has sponsored an expansion of the voucher program, acknowledged in February 2001 that only seven percent of the state's private schools have agreed to accept vouchers.31 The executive director of the Dade Association of Academic Non-Public Schools stated that "[m]ost of our private schools have tuition that's more than the vouchers would pay. Do you think a private school that charges $12,000 a year would be anxious to take a student for $4,000?"32
Other Florida private school administrators object to the provision that private schools must accept all eligible applicants for available seats. One Montessori school co-owner remarked that if "you have no say over who enters your school, vouchers will be a moot issue."33 Another headmaster said "I think there is a public perception that private schools are just sitting here waiting to take this money…But we, as a private school, are very proud of the way our school operates. A lot of it has to do with…being able to screen our students."34
The hotly-contested voucher initiative in California in November 2000 demonstrates that concerns about student selection are real. Under California's Prop. 38, private schools would have been permitted to reject public school children for almost any reason, including prior academic record, religion, gender, learning disability, proficiency in English or ability to pay extra tuition and fees.35