News: CJ Exclusives

Changes Stir Milwaukee Voucher Debate

Choice proponents concerned about new regulations on private schools

Recent events have put the Milwaukee school voucher program back in the news, and may have tarnished the program’s image among some supporters and foes alike.

The voucher program provides public funding to help send low-income children to private schools. It began operating in 1990, and has grown since. In 2003-04, more than 13,000 children took part in the school voucher program in Wisconsin. According to reports in the Pioneer Press, Wisconsin will spend $75 million among the 106 schools that participate in the plan.

The program began as a way for parents to find alternatives to failing public schools, by providing funds for private school tuition. Until recently, private schools kept their own practices and accountability standards under this arrangement. But scandals in a few schools in Milwaukee have brought legal changes to accountability under the voucher program.

Gov. James Doyle signed legislation in mid-March that will place private schools in Milwaukee’s voucher program under state scrutiny. School Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster called the legislation “a significant step forward in providing real operational accountability in the school choice program.” As yet, federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law haven’t been applied to the voucher schools, but statements from Wisconsin school officials suggest that since private schools receive public funds, they should be subject to all the same requirements as public schools.

There is no publicly funded voucher program in place in North Carolina. Some school choice advocates would like to change that, however.

Recent court decisions in Hoke County address the quality of public schools there, in addition to the central issue of adequate state and local funding. At the federal level, the No Child Left Behind law lets parents choose a better public school if their child’s school is consistently failing, but it doesn’t provide funds for private tuition. Given events in Milwaukee, a startup voucher program in North Carolina could require private schools to conform to both state and federal accountability standards.

Diocese of Raleigh Schools Superintendent Mike Fedewa was asked by CJ how he viewed state regulation of private schools in Milwaukee, and how the Raleigh diocese, which serves more than 6,000 students, would react to vouchers if some NCLB requirements came with them.

“I would oppose any plan that would restrict the freedom that we currently have as private schools,” he said. “This runs… from curriculum to teacher qualifications. We currently have the complete flexibility to determine what we teach, how we teach it, and who teaches it. Any plan that would take away this freedom would be too much of a price to pay.”

Only if those freedoms are untouched, Fedewa stressed, would a true needs-based voucher “be a legitimate solution to the problem.”