Wisconsin Bill Endangers Oldest Voucher Program

Published April 1, 2009

A bill introduced in the Wisconsin legislature aims to impose new standards and accountability measures on schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows low-income students to attend private and religious schools at no charge.

The bill, introduced in February but unnumbered at press time, is sponsored by state Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Cudahy) and state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine). While neither legislator responded to requests for comment, the bill’s opponents said the measure would impose unfair standards on nonpublic schools participating in the MPCP.

“It’s holding school choice accountable to even things Milwaukee Public Schools is not held accountable for,” said David King, CEO of the Milwaukee God Squad, a Christian organization that supports school choice.

“Last year legislators tried to cut [the MPCP] by 40 percent, and some wanted to eliminate it altogether,” King said. “So [Sinicki and Lehman] figured if we flip this ‘accountability’ measure on them, we know they’re not going to be able to reach it, and we’ve got ’em.”

Requirements Would Triple

The state’s Department of Public Instruction in late February had not seen the specific language of any bills regarding the MPCP, spokesman Patrick Gasper said.

However, a hard copy of the bill provided to School Reform News reveals its discussion points include four standards:

* at least 70 percent of MPCP pupils must advance one grade level each year;

* the private school’s average attendance rate for MPCP pupils must be at least 90 percent;

* at least 80 percent of MPCP pupils must demonstrate “significant academic progress”; and

* at least 70 percent of MPCP pupils’ families must meet parental involvement criteria established by the participating school.

Under current law, MPCP schools must meet at least one of these standards; the new bill would require each to meet at least three and annually submit a report to the Department of Private Instruction describing the school’s status respecting the fourth.

‘Want to Eliminate Choice’

Among other provisions, the bill also would require all professional staff members to hold a teaching license or permit issued by the Department of Public Instruction, beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

“If they put this into effect, you know how many schools would have to shut down?” King asked. “They want to eliminate school choice so they can force everyone into a neighborhood school. It takes the right from parents to say which school and what type of education their children get.”

King said he and other school choice advocates are working to educate parents about the bill’s implications.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.