Opinion Divided: Making Private Milwaukee Schools Public?

Major changes this year to Milwaukee’s 20-year old voucher program please some and dismay others.

Among historically united Milwaukee school choice supporters, opinion varies sharply on the most sweeping regulatory changes in the program’s history, which were enacted in July, described here. Among many new requirements, private schools will need to administer Wisconsin’s state-certified criterion reference tests, derided by independent experts as having some of the country’s least demanding proficiency standards.  A controversial change that is now being tested in court gives an organization at Marquette University, a private college, the right to block schools seeking to enter the program.

Some believe that increased “accountability” and “transparency” will raise the quality of private schools participating in the twenty-year old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).  Others dispute the wisdom of applying an extensive regulatory regime — one that has been ineffective in the public school arena  — to private schools receiving half the taxpayer support provided to Milwaukee’s public schools.

Largely lost in the discussion of the new regulations has been any recognition of the requirements for private schools in the program that existed prior to this year’s changes.

Under legislation enacted prior to this year, private schools have had to obtain independent accreditation within three years of joining the MPCP.  They have had to follow detailed “sound fiscal practices” established by the state and submit annual independent financial audits.  They also have had to meet state standards for financial viability and show that their facilities meet health and safety standards applicable to public schools.  Schools also have had to administer standardized tests to voucher students.  They report test scores to the University of Arkansas’s School Choice Demonstration Program, which is conducting a longitudinal evaluation of the MPCP.  Also part of the longitudinal study, a matched sample of voucher and Milwaukee Public Schools students are taking the same tests to produce a sound comparison.

These requirements have had a notable impact.  Since 2003, 30 schools have been removed from the program for failing to meet one or more of these standards.  Another 111 applicants have been denied entry to the program.  Finally, several schools are not expected to meet the three-year accreditation deadline and will lose eligibility to remain in the program.

The 2008 general elections provided the impetus for the changes enacted this year.  Opponents of the Milwaukee program now control the legislative and executive branches of Wisconsin state government.

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