Milwaukee Voucher Schools Seek Formal Accreditation

Published September 1, 2006

“Accreditation is a wonderful process of self- and community reflection that allowed us to see a clearer picture of ourselves,” said Basimah Abdullah, principal of Milwaukee’s Clara Mohammed School. The school, serving 131 low-income students as part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the nation’s first school voucher program, voluntarily achieved accreditation for its K-8 program last year.

But starting this fall, accreditation of schools participating in the MPCP will no longer be voluntary. As part of the bipartisan compromise reached earlier this year between the Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Jim Doyle (D) raising the enrollment cap on the MPCP, all participating schools must have accreditation or be in the process of getting it from one of several state-approved agencies by September 30. Schools that do no comply will be ineligible for the program.

Approved accrediting agencies include the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Accreditation (WRISA), Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University (ITL), Wisconsin North Central Association, Independent Schools Association of the Central States, Milwaukee Archdiocese, or any agency approved by the National Council for Private Schools Association (NCPSA). In addition, any school approved for scholarships in the 2005-06 school year by Partners for Advancing Values in Education, a private scholarship-granting organization, is exempt from the accreditation requirement for the current school year.

Building Frameworks

Doyle introduced the specific language of the accreditation proposal in a November 4, 2005 news release as a way “[t]o ensure minimum academic standards.”

Critics of the plan question whether accreditation alone ensures academic quality. In Wisconsin, several public high schools with accreditation also appear on the federal No Child Left Behind list of Schools in Need of Improvement. The schools suffer from low graduation rates and high achievement gaps, yet maintain their accreditation.

NCPSA Executive Director Don Petry said accreditation alone “cannot assure the success of individual students,” but he sees much value in the accreditation process because it sets up a framework for success.

“[It] requires a school to present evidence of its quality, integrity, planning, and achievement results,” Petry said.

Choosing Agencies

At the end of the 2005-06 school year, 39 of the 121 schools participating in the MPCP did not have accreditation. Since June, 16 of those 39 schools have applied for and been accepted into an accreditation process.

Eleven of the schools were accepted into ITL’s accreditation process. In the past, ITL has helped schools prepare for accreditation but has not itself served as an accrediting body. In response to inclusion in the law, ITL has set up a rigorous accreditation process that focuses on measurements of student learning and ensuring schools give students the skills to compete on an international level.

“We are pleased and excited to be part of the MPCP accreditation initiative,” said Helen Gilles, a school design specialist heading the ITL accreditation process, adding the agency’s process focuses on outcomes. The agency asks, “Are students in this school learning?” and “Are they making satisfactory progress towards proficiency in all disciplines?” she said.

Five schools were accepted into the accreditation process by WRISA, a body that accredits schools across Wisconsin, including 33 already participating in the MPCP.

The 23 returning MPCP schools that remain unaccredited have until September 30 to apply for accreditation. As the accreditation process generally takes three years, all 39 schools have until December 31, 2009 to obtain accreditation.

Mike Ford ([email protected]) is a research associate at School Choice Wisconsin in Milwaukee.