Another Milwaukee voucher school closes, raising more questions

 

Just nine days into the school year, a Milwaukee voucher school abruptly shut down, drawing renewed criticism from opponents of efforts to privatize Wisconsin’s K–12 public school system.

Daughters of the Father Christian Academy, 1877 N. 24th Place, says it closed voluntarily, but the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction had cited it for multiple problems and tried to remove it from the state’s Parental Choice Program over the summer. The school maintains a website that still features an enrollment tab.

Elsewhere on the Web, the academy’s enrollment is listed as 240 students. Now those students’ parents are scrambling for a place to enroll their kids.

The DPI did not return phone messages seeking information about the closure.

By most measures, the school appeared doomed from the start. It managed to achieve accreditation, beginning in the 2007–08 school year, despite a number of red flags that Fox 6 news uncovered during an investigation in May. Those included the revelation that school founder Bishop Doris Pinkney had filed for bankruptcy three times since 1995 and did not have a teaching credential. The school’s application was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. 

Fox 6 launched the probe after parents of students at the academy complained the school abruptly ceased providing bus service to students in middle of the last academic year due to financial mismanagement. Pinkney acknowledged to a bankruptcy court that she was earning $132,000 annually.

In 2011, a child care center that Pinkney ran was shuttered for “substantial and repeat violations of licensing rules,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Families and Children.

A study published in January by the Wisconsin State Journal concluded that voucher school closings are common in the state. Eleven schools participating in the voucher program were removed within a year of opening due to poor educational standards — at a $4.1 million cost to taxpayers.

The WSJ article appeared just after Milwaukee’s Travis Technology High School was terminated for failing to meet state requirements during the winter break of the 2014–15 school year.

The shutdown of Daughters of the Father Christian Academy brought the number of terminated voucher schools in the state to 57 since 2003, according to a just-released report by the DPI. Those schools have cost Wisconsin taxpayers $176 million.

News of the academy’s closing came one week after Republican legislators appeared poised to fast-track an expansion of Gov. Scott Walker’s private school voucher program. In the 2015–17 biennial budget, Republicans lifted a cap on the number of voucher schools permitted to operate in the state by 1 percent annually. But on Sept. 4, Republicans introduced a proposal — Senate Bill 250 — that would exempt certain school districts from abiding by that limitation, allowing voucher schools to expand more rapidly.

Special interests

“Rather than selling out Wisconsin students to protect the special interests behind Gov. Walker’s presidential campaign, we need action now to prevent further cases of voucher fraud,” Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a news release issued prior to Walker’s suspension of his campaign.

By special interests, Shilling was referring to the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and other right-wing groups that put the creation of private, for-profit schools at the top of their political agenda. In recent years, wealthy and mostly out-of-state pro-voucher groups and organizations have spent more than $7.5 million on campaign contributions for Walker and Wisconsin Republicans, as well as on pro-voucher advertising and lobbying efforts in the state, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. As the law currently stands, even without taking the potential fiscal impact of SB 250 into consideration, the state’s GOP-controlled legislature is on track to spend $1.2 billion on private schools between 2011 and 2017.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign characterized that expenditure as a 15,600 percent return on the $7.5 million “investment” of voucher school supporters.

Since Republicans took over state government, voucher school funding has risen about 77 percent, while funding for K–12 public schools has increased 11 percent, according to a memo that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau prepared at Schilling’s request.

There were 29,609 students in the voucher program during the last academic school year, according to the DPI. That’s an increase of 26 percent from the the 2011–12 academic year.

Voucher payments are $7,210 for students in K–8 grades and $7,856 for high school students. Those payments represent about $200 million in school voucher funding that would otherwise have gone into the public school system.

“With declining family wages, a shrinking middle class and statewide teacher shortages, we need to stop taking money away from Wisconsin’s children and start investing in quality public schools,” Shilling said.

Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, countered that total spending on voucher schools is less than 5 percent of all money spent on schools in the state. He accused voucher school opponents of not coming forward with new ideas or reforms to improve K–12 education, but rather complaining about funding.

Accountability

In January, state Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd, D-Milwaukee, introduced Senate Bill 3, which would set operating and academic standards for voucher schools. Those schools currently operate without the accountability required of public schools.

SB 3 would mandate voucher schools hire licensed teachers, conduct staff background checks, meet state graduation standards and be located in Wisconsin. But the Legislature’s Republican majority has kept the bill bottled up in committees and GOP leadership is unlikely to release it for a vote.

“The recent news reports show a need for taxpayer-funded voucher schools to be held to the same standards as public schools,” Harris Dodd said in a news release. “I introduced Senate Bill 3 because I believe that all children should receive a quality and reliable education. By holding voucher schools accountable, this bill would ensure that students are being taught by qualified, licensed teachers and that precious taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on schools who shut their doors mid-way through the year.

“As a state, we need to improve public oversight, transparency, and student safety in these schools, who are receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer money.”

As he traveled the country campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, Walker touted Wisconsin’s leadership in providing school choice through the voucher program. But the subject did not resonate with the majority of voters. In fact, most polls show voters prefer public schools over voucher schools.

Inherently flawed

Critics contend that voucher schools are inherently flawed. For one thing, 85 percent of Milwaukee’s voucher schools over the past 30 years have been religious schools, which critics say violates the Constitution’s guaranteed separation of church and state. 

Another thing that riles voucher opponents is some schools eligible for vouchers are expensive private institutions whose students’ parents can afford to pay — and in the past were paying — tuition out of their own pockets. Critics charge that those schools are diverting money from underfunded public schools.

“In Wisconsin, approximately 79 percent of the students who received a taxpayer-subsidized voucher in 2013 were already attending private schools,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, wrote in an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This means taxpayer dollars are not being used to advance public education, but instead are being used to subsidize the education of a small number of students already enrolled in private schools at the expense of students in public schools in an attempt to further privatize education.”

An additional problem with voucher schools is many have failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities. In 2013, the federal government wrote the DPI that it must do more to enforce requirements under the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

The letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division contained a warning: “The United States reserves its right to pursue enforcement through other means.”

Voucher supporters claim that private schools provide a superior academic environment for students, particularly students from failing public schools. But data comparing the graduation rates and academic proficiencies of students attending public schools with those in voucher schools are inconsistent at best. It appears that while some voucher schools have outperformed public schools, many others have produced poor results and even turned out to be unreliable scam operations.

While the jury is apparently still out on the effectiveness of voucher schools, they continue to drain public education dollars at a time when the state suffers from a teacher shortage due to Walker’s Act 10. Considered the governor’s signature legislation, Act 10 took away teachers’ rights to bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. In response, thousands of teachers either retired or left the state.

Protests staged by teachers and other public employees over Act 10 resulted in the demonization of the profession by tea party Republicans. That has discouraged college students in Wisconsin from choosing to major in education, which could haunt the state for years to come.

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