By Barbara J. Miner
Accountability and achievement are two of the biggest buzzwords in education today.
So why are Milwaukee’s voucher schools allowed to sidestep mandates that other publicly funded schools must follow?
Gov. Scott Walker wants to further expand the voucher program, under which public tax dollars are funneled to private schools. Even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board has problems with this agenda.
Criticizing Walker’s plans, the newspaper calls for an emphasis on achievement and accountability, two legitimate concerns. But vague admonitions are not enough. Without specific demands, such pleas will have little impact.
Fortunately, there are two specific and reasonable demands that can — and should — be made of voucher schools.
First, that the voucher schools adhere to Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws.
Second, that the voucher schools agree to educate all children, in particular those with special educational needs.
VOUCHERS NO LONGER AN ‘EXPERIMENT’
When the voucher program began in 1990, it was billed as a small, experimental initiative to help a few hundred poor children in seven community schools. But even then, the voucher movement had its eye on its prize: replacing our system of public schools with a voucherized, privatized system of every-consumer-for-themselves. Bit by bit, the program was expanded and the focus on poor children was abandoned.
Today there are almost 25,000 students from Milwaukee receiving vouchers to attend a private school. Based on size, the voucher program is now the state’s third largest school district, just behind Madison.
It’s long past time to demand serious reforms.
Calls for increased accountability from the voucher schools are meaningless unless they acknowledge the essential importance of Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote nearly a century ago, underlining the importance of making information available to the public, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
All public schools must follow the state’s open meetings and records requirements. Why should the private voucher schools be exempt? This is especially worrisome because a number of voucher schools are phoney private schools; all their students receive a publicly funded voucher and there is not a single student privately paying tuition.
If the voucher schools want to truly be accountable, they should release their data to the public — whether racial demographics, suspension rates, admission policies, staff pay, or the names and contact information of their boards of directors. Likewise, their meetings should be open to the public.
As for achievement, if the voucher schools want to be seriously address this problem, they should agree to educate all children.
Public school districts, by law, must meet the special educational needs of all their students. Voucher schools, because by are defined as private, are not required to meet a student’s special needs beyond what can be provided with minor adjustments, for example helping with reading or speech impairments.
In Milwaukee, the voucher movement has openly and unabashedly created a system of separate and unequal schools. The education of special ed students is the prime example. The percentage of special ed students in Milwaukee’s public schools is about 20 percent. At the private voucher schools, the comparable figure is less than 2 percent.
“All together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what the Milwaukee Public Schools serves in just one of its district schools: Hamilton High School,” Milwaukee superintendent Gregory Thornton noted last year.
Yes, by all means demand increased accountability and achievement. But make the demands mean something. Otherwise, it’s just feel-good rhetoric.
— — —
This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, you can also sign up for email notifications.