Re: voucher article
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- From: Victor Steinbok <aardvark69@EARTHLINK.NET>
- Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2001 11:19:34 -0400
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Milwaukee Will Vouch for Vouchers
Parochial, Private Schools Draw Pupils -- and Questions About Success
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2001; Page A01
MILWAUKEE -- Low-income parents here can use taxpayer dollars to send
their children to a private school that emphasizes African heritage. Or
uses Montessori's hands-on approach. Or another that requires students
to wear school uniforms.
They are all part of the increasingly popular state-funded voucher
program. It allows parents to enroll children in 103 private and
parochial schools that
emphasize characteristics important to them and otherwise would be out
of their financial reach.
There's one thing they don't know, however: whether the private schools
attain their most fundamental goal of providing a better education than
That's because voucher students are not required to take standardized
tests and can't be compared to their public school counterparts. And the schools
themselves are subject to only the most minimal regulations, under the
sometimes flawed theory that parents are the best arbiters of education quality.
"The mythology that private schools are all good is crazy," said John F.
Witte, a University of Wisconsin professor appointed by the state to evaluate
Milwaukee's voucher program. "I would say they are about like the public
schools in their range."
President Bush and Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige have endorsed
this market approach to education. They say private schools will raise
achievement for students who attend them and for students in public
schools, which they contend would be transformed by competition.
In his education plan, which will be debated by the Senate as soon as
next month, Bush has proposed offering parents of students in
schools the option of $1,500 a year in federal money to pay private
Obscured in the debate has been the question of accountability. Bush is
not proposing that private school students be required to take the standardized
tests that he wants to impose on public school students in grades 3-8.
In Milwaukee -- which has more students participating in publicly funded
school choice programs than anywhere else in the United States -- "we have
choice, but no accountability whatsoever," said Paulette Copeland,
president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, the local
"For all we know, we have happy parents with miseducated children. We
have no idea how the children are really doing."
Voucher supporters say the lack of regulation is essential for the
program to survive. Tests and regulations, they contend, would lead to a
government-imposed curriculum and ultimately jeopardize the legal status
of religious schools, which make up the majority of the schools in the program.
Also, they say, many schools in the choice program offer their own
tests, though they are usually not comparable to public school tests.
"What the Milwaukee parental choice program does is give the opportunity
to people of low income to have the same choice as people of upper
choose schools for their kids," said Nivard Scheel, assistant to the
superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. One-third of
voucher students attend schools run by the Archdiocese, which reversed a
long slide in enrollment by participating.
In his evaluation of the voucher program, Witte found that large
majorities of parents liked the academic offerings and the disciplined
atmosphere of the
private schools they chose.
But Witte found no significant differences between the math and reading
scores of voucher students and the scores of low-income students who
public schools. Two other researchers found increases in student
achievement among voucher students, but those improvements were not seen as
significant or involved too few students to be considered reliable.
Witte's research ended in 1995, when the Wisconsin legislature stopped
funding it after he testified against expansion of the program. The program
ultimately became the nation's largest publicly funded voucher effort.
Evidence of the education benefits of voucher programs in Cleveland and
Florida is no clearer. In Cleveland, researchers have found signs of academic
improvement, but those findings are clouded because investigators could
not identify reliable groups of public students with which to compare them.
A recent report in Florida found that struggling public schools faced
with the threat of losing students to vouchers showed more improvement on
standardized tests than other schools. But critics contend that
researchers ignored factors such as extra teachers and other resources
that were funneled to
the failing schools.
Wisconsin legislators are considering a long-term study to assess the
benefits of school choice. In Milwaukee, the broad array of publicly
options includes the voucher program that enrolls 9,638 students, 11
charter schools attended by 5,000 students and a program that allows
more to attend schools in nearby suburbs. Many thousands of other city
students are allowed to attend classes outside their neighborhood school
Many school reform proponents see these education options as the most
important change brought by vouchers.
"This is about allowing parents to choose what they think is best for
their children," said Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee school
director of Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of
Learning, which advocates school choice. "Parents make decisions around
a variety of
issues. Smaller schools. Some want faith-based institutions. I want
people to have choices."
The wide range of education options has forced public schools to work
harder to attract and retain their 100,000 students via infomercials,
houses and radio spots. They have something to sell: Dropout rates have
declined four straight years and reading scores have improved the past three.
"We can't contemplate doing business as usual because we have not done a
good job in the past of extending ourselves to students and parents,"
Milwaukee School Superintendent Spencer Korte said. "Now, we need to do
it to survive."
The decade-old voucher program has enjoyed a secure place in the
education landscape since 1998, when its constitutionality was upheld by
Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal
challenging the program.
The vouchers, worth $5,300 each, are available only to students whose
parents earn less than $30,000 a year for a family of four. The program
million in state money to private and parochial schools, a cost borne
half by Milwaukee schools and half by the state's 425 other school districts.
The private schools are required to admit all eligible students and must
accept vouchers as full tuition. But the schools are subject to almost
regulations. There are no mandatory guidelines in the choice program for
curriculum, testing or even attendance.
That hasn't dissuaded parents who have chosen vouchers. Cheryl Bowen,
for example, believes her two children went awry in public school. When
time for her grandchildren to go to school, she used state-funded
vouchers to send them to St. Rafael the Archangel, a Catholic school two
blocks from their
"They go to Mass once a week, which I like," Bowen said. "I like the
fact that they wear uniforms. There is no fighting at their school, and
they have none of
that silly competition over clothes."
Bowen acknowledges that she knew little about the school's academic
track record. "I really didn't investigate that," she said..
Other schools, however, have distinguished themselves by their dubious
academic offerings. Last summer, Sensas-Utcha Institute of Holistic
set to enroll 135 city children in a curriculum that said students could
gain knowledge from books simply by resting their hands on them. The
a Ph.D. that state officials said he purchased over the Internet.
Yet the school was fully qualified for state vouchers. Ultimately, it
didn't open, but only because it lacked a suitable building.
"The Milwaukee choice program is so unregulated as to allow very
questionable schools to participate with no oversight," said Greg Doyle,
a spokesman for
the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. "There are a couple of
schools where there is a serious question as to whether or not students are
Voucher supporters say such schools are the rare exception.
Julia Doyle, an administrative assistant, has enrolled three of her four
children in Milwaukee's choice program.
"Without a doubt, it's highly important for a parent to be able to look
at the individual child, and be able to assess the child's personality
and decide where
you think they will best fit," Doyle said.
Two of them attend the Marva Collins Preparatory School of Wisconsin,
where enrollment has quadrupled -- to 300 -- since it opened in 1997.
offers the same mix of education basics -- phonics, poetry, vocabulary
and rigorous expectations -- that its namesake emphasized to produce
gains that brought national attention to her first school in Chicago.
Ninety percent of the school's students are low-income and two-thirds
come from single-parent homes. But the school, one of the few to offer standardized
tests comparable to the public school test battery, has decisively
outperformed public schools.
Robert Rauh, the school's principal, said: "There's no magic here --
just a lot of hard work."
© 2001 The Washington
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