Voucher Schools Violating Wisconsin Law on Student Admissions

New legal complaint urges DPI to suspend state payments to schools not in compliance

People For the American Way Foundation and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP today charged in a legal complaint filed with the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction that more than a third of the 88 private voucher schools in Milwaukee are or may be violating state law concerning how voucher students must be selected for admission.

This troubling new information comes from a comprehensive review of "random selection" plan documents filed with Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction (DPI) by the voucher schools themselves. The plans reveal that 17 voucher schools are clearly violating the legal requirement that they adopt and utilize a random selection process, and that there are serious questions DPI should investigate as to whether an additional 18 voucher schools are violating the requirement.

A number of the schools have ignored the requirement that they admit voucher students on a nondiscriminatory basis, instead adopting student selection plans that explicitly favor parishioners or others. Others have simply ignored the requirement, failing to submit to the state any random selection plan at all.

In a detailed letter to Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction John Benson, who is charged by law with enforcing the random selection requirement, lawyers for PFAWF and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP describe the ways in which many schools are circumventing, flouting or otherwise ignoring the state requirement for a random selection plan. The letter asks DPI to withhold any further payments to these schools until they bring their procedures into compliance with the law.

A key provision of the Wisconsin voucher program requires participating private and religious schools to admit voucher students on a truly random basis. Nonetheless, a number of schools are granting illegal preferences to students on religious, academic or other grounds.

"Voucher schools have a moral and legal obligation to comply with the law, which means truly random selection of voucher students," said PFAWF General Counsel Elliot Mincberg. "The voucher program was sold to Wisconsin legislators and indeed defended before the Wisconsin Supreme Court with the promise that all voucher students would get an equal chance to participate through random selection, not selection based on religious belief or other factors. That promise has been broken."

Here are some examples of Milwaukee schools that are violating the state's random selection requirement:

Saint Alexander School's "random selection" plan states that it creates a preference for Catholic students. It says: "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.)

Blessed Sacrament School's "random selection" plan specifically provides that "Parishioners are not subject to the random selection process."

St. Marcus Lutheran School failed to submit a random selection plan, in violation of state regulations. Instead, it reported to DPI that its "congregation voted on Sunday, August 16 to participate" in the voucher program. The very next day, the school "accepted 'Choice' applications during [its] regularly scheduled registration day. All students who applied were accepted." By announcing the voucher openings to its congregation before announcing them to the general public, and then failing to use random selection, St. Marcus Lutheran School apparently filled its positions with its choice of students, contrary to the random selection requirement.

Louis Tucker Academy incomprehensibly described its "random selection" plan as follows: "The selection of applicants will be informal and randomly selected based upon interest. Interest will be determined by the return of applications. There will be a staff of three that will select an equal amount of applicants on a applications are received basis. [sic] Staff will be randomly selected and will not have any prior notice. Each applicant will get a return notice from the school informing them weather [sic] or not they were excepted [sic] into our program."
In their letter to Superintendent Benson, Mincberg and Deputy Legal Director Judith E. Schaeffer, and NAACP attorneys James Hall and William Lynch request DPI to withhold public funds from the noncompliant schools pending further investigation by the state and corrective action by the schools to bring them into compliance with the law.
"This new evidence that voucher schools are not obeying the law reinforces our strong belief that vouchers are the wrong choice for Milwaukee and throughout the United States," said PFAWF President Carole Shields. "Even in Milwaukee, where state law explicitly requires random selection, a number of voucher schools have blatantly demonstrated their failure to comply. We will continue to work with the NAACP and other concerned groups in Milwaukee to make sure that vouchers are not being used to open the door to new discrimination against school children there - and to oppose such programs around the country."

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Read the Legal Complaint from PFAWF and NAACP.

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