Five schools have been removed from the 15-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), and 51 others that applied for inclusion have been turned away over the past 18 months, thanks to stringent accountability measures enacted last year.
A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators provided the impetus in March 2004, when they adopted the legislation now referred to as Act 155. Its main provisions arose from a cooperative planning effort by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit Milwaukee group that supports school choice.
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last year, when the law was first used to prevent schools from participating in the citywide voucher program, that schools with academic problems often have financial problems as well. “These new accountability requirements had a major impact in that they kept schools out that didn’t do adequate planning,” he said.
Growth Requires Accountability
The MPCP is the nation’s oldest program providing public support for parents who choose private schools for their K-12 students. Enrollment in the program has grown from 337 students at seven schools in 1990-91 to 14,427 students at 117 schools in 2004-05. To be eligible for the program, students’ family income must be at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level ($34,274 for a family of four in 2005-06).
The program’s rapid growth has been accompanied by problems at some participating schools. Legislators called for reforms to strengthen the program following news media reports during the 2003-04 school year that highlighted financial malfeasance at several schools. The most widely reported incident was that of David Seppeh, administrator of the Mandella Academy for Science and Math, using state voucher payments to buy two luxury cars.
Act 155 requires schools seeking to enter the MPCP to demonstrate fiscal viability and, once admitted, to follow sound fiscal practices. The law allows the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction to remove from the program any school failing to comply with the new fiscal oversight guidelines, and to close immediately any school that presents an “imminent threat to the health and safety of students.”
Following enactment of Act 155, state officials, under Evers’ direction, worked with a group of Milwaukee private school principals and accountants to develop permanent administrative rules defining fiscal viability and sound fiscal practices. The result is a comprehensive set of rules that took effect in September 2005.
Problem Schools Called Atypical
Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series published earlier this year “demonstrates that problem schools in the MPCP are atypical.” The paper’s reporters visited 106 schools participating in the program. At schools representing less than 5 percent of total program enrollment, the newspaper found, “professionalism appeared lacking, facilities were not good, and the overall operation appeared alarming when it came to the basic matter of educating children.”
Overall, however, the paper identified more positive qualities about schools and students enrolled in the MPCP than negative ones.
In addition to provisions of Act 155, schools participating in the MPCP must meet all health and safety laws or codes that apply to public schools, comply with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, follow uniform financial accounting standards, and file an annual independent financial audit by a certified public accountant.
Mike Ford ([email protected]) is a research associate at School Choice Wisconsin.