June: Voucher schools should be more open

2013 Columns

Sarah Karon

Back in 1990, when Milwaukee launched the nation’s first publicly funded voucher program, participating schools could enroll no more than 49 percent voucher students. These schools were considered private, because the majority of their students paid private tuition.

Fast-forward to 2013.

Now, more than half of Milwaukee’s 110 voucher schools have at least 95 percent of students on publicly funded vouchers. In one-fifth of these schools, every student receives a voucher.

Yet because voucher schools are still classified as “private,” they can — and do — ignore Wisconsin’s open records and meetings laws. It’s a double standard that undermines transparency and shields information from parents and the public.

Let’s say you want to enroll your child in St. Anthony School, which receives more taxpayer dollars than any other school in Milwaukee’s voucher program.

As a parent, you may want to know which textbooks the school uses, how many teachers are licensed, what topics are covered in curricula, and the school’s graduation, dropout, suspension and expulsion rates. You might want to review agendas and minutes from governance meetings, or see a breakdown of families’ income distribution.

Only you can’t, unless the school decides to share that information. Voucher schools aren’t required to report any of this data to the state, or otherwise make it publicly available.

Shielding this information has had serious consequences. Last June, St. John Fisher Academy, a school in the Racine voucher program, suddenly closed, leaving parents and teachers scrambling. Administrators blamed the closure on “lack of funds.” The school, it turns out, failed to pay teachers for months and lost nearly two-thirds of its students in its final year.

All but one of the 52 students attending St. John Fisher received a publicly funded voucher. Yet because the school was “private,” it wasn’t required to abide by the same openness laws as public schools. Without accountability and oversight, educators, parents and kids suffer.

The state has made some moves toward transparency. Beginning in 2010, voucher schools were required to report students’ test scores to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The state agency also collects voucher schools’ financial information, racial demographics and school policies; members of the public can obtain these by submitting an open records request.

Whether there will be further steps toward accountability remains to be seen.

Early drafts of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to expand the voucher program to nine school districts included a statewide accountability system, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. (Ironically, the newspaper discovered this via records requested under the state’s open records law.) The system would have held all public schools and publicly funded voucher schools to the same standards.

But legislators scrapped these plans. Instead, Walker’s 2013-15 budget vaguely references the need for voucher schools to participate in a “statewide student information system.” DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper confirms this would make voucher schools report more data to the state, but says “the specifics of those requirements are not yet known.”

Even our education officials have been left in the dark.

Creating transparency in our schools is in the best interest of Wisconsin families, educators and policy makers. Parents deserve to know what’s going on in kids’ schools. And taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent.

Wisconsin prides itself on government transparency, through its far-reaching openness laws. The state’s publicly funded schools — be they public or “private” — should not be exempt from that tradition.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a non-profit group dedicated to open government. Sarah Karon is communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.