The Incredible Disappearing School Choice ‘Scandal’

Published December 1, 2000

Editor’s Note: Marquette University professor Howard Fuller frequently has noted that voucher opponents have a three-phase strategy for defeating school choice in any state. The first phase involves working to prevent the passage of any school choice legislation. If school choice legislation nevertheless passes, phase two involves working to block the new law by challenging it in court. When the court fights are concluded, the final phase involves working to drown choice schools in added rules and regulations.

To justify those new rules and regulations, voucher opponents publicize every misstep by voucher schools as a “scandal.” As the account here indicates, the cry of “scandal” is voiced even when there are no missteps on the part of voucher schools.

In late September, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) had begun a “crackdown on [13] unqualified applicants for choice school funding” from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

Just three weeks later, DPI had determined that 12 of the 13 schools were eligible after all. Although no decision has been reached with regard to the thirteenth, information from the investigation published so far suggests that it, too, will qualify.

How did 13 “unqualified” schools become “qualified” so quickly? The short answer is that DPI botched the entire operation. Its flawed actions unnecessarily alarmed parents and damaged the reputation of good schools. The entire episode was avoidable.

DPI’s tactics suggest its main goal was to generate negative headlines and create support for added regulation of MPCP schools. For example:

  • DPI told the news media of its “crackdown” before telling the affected schools. Administrators at the schools first learned they might be kicked out of the parental choice program from a reporter.
  • After the “crackdown” began, but well before the investigation had concluded, the Journal-Sentinel published a letter from DPI Superintendent John Benson. In it, he described “con artists [who] are more than willing to prey on the most vulnerable members of society” through the MPCP. He added that “well-meaning parents . . . can be misled by smooth talk.”
  • In a subsequent statement, Benson said his actions reflected a need to remove “charlatans” from the MPCP. He also said he needed more authority to regulate the program.

The Facts

Wisconsin law requires that MPCP schools be “private schools,” as defined in the Wisconsin Statutes, §118.165. DPI has not promulgated procedures for determining how schools show compliance with §118.165. Absent such procedures, DPI simply has required that MPCP schools acknowledge their awareness of and guarantee compliance with §118.165.

In August 2000, after 10 years of the “acknowledge and guarantee” practice described above, DPI asked some choice schools for information related to the requirements of §118.165. DPI did not visit the schools. It did not explain that the schools’ MPCP eligibility was under review. It did not set a deadline for receiving the requested information. It did not notify parents that it was reviewing the eligibility of the school they had selected for their children.

A month later, still without visiting the schools, DPI informed several that they had provided insufficient information. DPI told some schools they were disqualified from the MPCP, while telling others they were on the verge of termination.

Parents, never contacted by DPI, first learned of the “crackdown” in their September 26 newspaper.

What Happened Next

A majority of affected schools, working with a coalition of Milwaukee school choice supporters, took several actions.

  • They sought and received a pledge of emergency financial assistance from Partners Advancing Values in Education, a private, nonprofit Milwaukee group.
  • They re-affirmed their willingness and obligation to meet the requirements of §118.165.
  • They retained legal counsel, with assistance from the American Education Reform Council.
  • They asked DPI to clarify its ambiguous requests for information.
  • They threatened to sue DPI if it did not release choice funds.

Within days DPI began a retreat from its claims that the schools did not qualify for the program. To explain their backpedaling, the agency said the schools had “finally submitted” necessary information.

Howard Fuller is Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee and president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

For more information . . .

The following documents provide further information and are available on the Internet at under Research and Archives, Milwaukee Research.

  • Response to DPI Administration of the MPCP, letter dated September 27, 2000;
  • MPCP Schools’ Response to DPI Actions, letter dated October 5, 2000;
  • Notice of Legal Action by Choice Schools, dated October 5, 2000.