A Wisconsin state audit released in February 2000 found that because voucher schools do not have to administer or report test results, it is impossible to assess academic achievement in these schools.3 This is the case in spite of 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.”4 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.”5 In February 2001, the Superintendent again urged the legislature and the governor to bring greater oversight to “a program devoid of any meaningful accountability.”6 However, even today, private schools are not accountable for how funds are spent, nor for measuring their impact on student achievement, as pro-voucher legislators have rejected proposed accountability measures.
The Wisconsin legislature eliminated all funding for data collection and evaluation in 1995 as it expanded the voucher program to include religious schools7 and has failed, since then, to remedy the problem despite the findings of the state audit and the recommendations of the state 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 and additionally would have been specifically prohibited from releasing any school-by-school test scores for voucher schools.8 Public school scores, however, would remain a matter of public record. The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unanimously rejected the Governor’s proposal.9 The result is that no comprehensive academic achievement data for voucher schools has been collected since 1995.
Voucher schools have attempted to avoid even the minimal accountability procedures required by state law. The law specifically requires voucher schools to randomly select voucher students to ensure that all eligible students have equal access to the program. However, a review conducted in 1998-99 by PFAWF and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP found that a number of voucher schools were violating the random selection requirement of the statute.10 Based on a complaint made by PFAWF and the NAACP, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) adopted a new rule requiring that a private school’s random selection plan be approved by the agency before being allowed to participate in the voucher program. The result was that some voucher schools had to re-write their random selection plans to participate in the voucher program during the 1999-00 school year.11
An investigation by PFAWF and the NAACP in 1999 found that a number of voucher schools were violating the law by imposing unlawful admissions requirements on voucher students, charging them unlawful fees or discouraging parents of voucher students from exercising their statutory right to opt their children out of religious activities. Based on a second complaint made by the two groups, DPI initiated its own investigation regarding violations of the voucher law. DPI’s investigation met with resistance from voucher schools who charged that DPI lacked jurisdiction to impose oversight and enforcement regulations on private schools. DPI rejected that argument, conducted its own investigation, and in April 2000, issued findings of “probable cause” that seven participating voucher schools had violated the voucher law by imposing unlawful admissions requirements on voucher students and/or charging unlawful fees.12
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.”13 Testing was not the only violation cited. Additionally, at least one voucher school, 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.14
In the 2000-01 school year, the Sensas-Utcha Institute for Holistic Learning was denied funding because it had not obtained a school site as required by the state’s voucher law. But there’s more to the story. 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 he obtained from the American College of Metaphysical Theology, an organization that awards Ph.D. degrees for $199. One parent stated 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 the school’s questionable legitimacy, 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.15 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.”16 Sensas-Utcha, again registered for the 2002-03 school year although it remains to be seen as to whether the school will provide DPI with the required certification by the August deadline.17
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 also raped her. 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, indeed, 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.”18 Alex’s Academic of Excellence remains in the voucher program to date but has since corrected its school name.19
In the 2000-01 school year, DPI withheld funds from 13 voucher schools. Some failed to document that they qualified as private schools by providing the minimum required hours of academic instruction required by the state’s voucher law. Other schools lacked occupancy permits or failed to demonstrate that their buildings met health and safety codes. 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 it for being politically motivated. Nine of the schools threatened to sue; however, all subsequently provided DPI with adequate documentation and received their funds.20 Superintendent Benson subsequently requested from the legislature clarification of the criteria used to classify applicants as “schools” since many of the schools in question were believed to be part-time day-care providers, and, in fact had been daycare centers immediately prior to their entry into the voucher program.21 “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.22
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.23 Two had inflated their enrollment numbers—upon which payment is based—and closed owing the state some $200,000.24 One school’s director was convicted of two felony counts of fraud.25 Following this, voucher sponsor Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams offered legislation to authorize the Department of Public Instruction to inspect and audit schools.26 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.27
Accountability Measures Blocked in Milwaukee Voucher Program
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.28 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 recommendations on the Governor’s 2001-03 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.29
Subsequent to the Joint Finance Committee’s vote, in both 2001 and 2002, 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 bills as negotiated by the conference committee.30