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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The School Accountability Moment

Milwaukee’s choice program gets guidelines

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Two decades after Milwaukee became Ground Zero in the experimental school voucher movement, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is having its accountability moment.

Until now, the program has had scant oversight from the state, which funds the vouchers for the more than 20,000 low-income students who attend private schools in Milwaukee.

But during the latest budget battle, Gov. Jim Doyle proposed measures that would have forced schools to become accredited before participating in the program, increase transparency to the public, schedule the same number of hours of instruction as public schools, and administer state standardized tests.

Milwaukee lawmakers and education leaders modified Doyle’s accreditation requirements to instead include a preaccreditation screening process, arguing that Doyle’s requirements would have prevented startup schools from being accepted into the voucher program. The new preaccreditation screening process is already being implemented for the 2009-2010 academic year.

State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said the Milwaukee coalition brought together legislators and education advocates who’d had combustible relationships with each other. The choice program has, historically, been supported by Republicans in the state Legislature, some central city Democratic lawmakers and faith-based institutions, and opposed by Democrats, who are concerned about using public dollars for religious schools, the lack of educational standards for teachers and curricula, and the voucher program’s negative effect on city property taxes and the Milwaukee Public Schools.

“There were the people in the Democratic Party who wanted to kill the [choice] program,” Taylor said of the sometimes tense discussions. “There were some who wanted to be vengeful because of what they’ve experienced in the past. There were individuals in the choice movement who didn’t want to do anything, regardless, because they didn’t want to do it with Democrats. And there were [choice] people who didn’t want to do anything because they didn’t feel they should have to. And then there were the people in the middle, from both sides, who wanted to improve quality. These were relationships that in some sense were hard to get going because people were so used to talking at each other instead of with each other.”

But Bob Peterson, a public school teacher who is the founding editor of the education reform magazine Rethinking Schools, said the voucher program must do more to comply with open meetings and open records laws, provide more transparency about test scores and student achievement, and educate students with special needs.

“The state Legislature is slowly waking up and realizing that there needs to be some semblance of accountability in the voucher program,” Peterson said. “Some baby steps were taken in this direction in the last session, but we probably won’t see the results for another three or four years.”

Vetting the New Schools

The legislative changes now require schools to be vetted before they are eligible for the voucher program, something that hadn’t been done. “Before, if someone had an idea, we let them do it,” Taylor said.

So Doyle proposed that all schools must become accredited before being accepted into the voucher program and receiving state money.

But the accreditation process takes three to five years, and only established schools can take part in that process. Doyle’s proposals would have shut out startup schools from the voucher program, Taylor argued. “It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg situation,” Taylor said. “You can’t get accredited unless you’re a school.”

The solution was to pre-screen schools before they could receive voucher funds, and require all schools to become accredited within the next few years. An exception was made for schools that received scholarships from Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), which had been established under the name of Milwaukee Archdiocesan Education Foundation in 1992.

Taylor found that the Marquette University-based Institute for the Transformation of Learning (ITL) had a more stringent accreditation process than other entities that accredit voucher schools, so it was selected to become the sole agency to screen candidates for the voucher program. ITL is headed by former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller, a longtime voucher advocate. Fuller said he set up a New Schools Approval Board, which vets the applicants to the program. When schools are recommended, the state Department of Public Instruction reviews their financial plans. Funding for DPI auditors was included in the latest biennial budget.

Peterson said he was “flabbergasted” by the changes, which allow a faith-based school to monitor a publicly funded program. “I think giving the power to a private group of individuals at a Catholic university is a rather curious way to increase public accountability when it comes to voucher schools,” Peterson said. “I was flabbergasted. It’s odd.”

New Standards

Fuller told the Shepherd that the preaccreditation standards “are pretty straightforward.”

Schools are required to have a governing body, a mission statement, stated goals and objectives, and to conduct background checks on all school board members. The facilities must have a certificate of occupancy, a fire inspection report and health and safety policies. Administrators and teachers must have college degrees and licenses and pass background checks.

The curriculum must be approved by the school’s board and include monthly lesson plan templates for core subjects. Standardized tests and administration dates must be scheduled and promotion and graduation policies must be developed. The school board must approve a budget, and the business manager is required to attend a fiscal management training program offered by DPI. And, lastly, the school has to set up a daily class schedule and school calendar.

“I don’t think that these are unreasonable things to ask of a group of people who are talking about starting a school,” Fuller said.

In this academic year, 57 schools expressed interest in joining the voucher program, while 19 submitted plans to the ITL. Only three were recommended for the program.

Schools were denied for a variety of reasons: One didn’t submit a budget, while many neglected to conduct background checks on staff or provide details on their curriculum. Testing dates and appropriate credentials hadn’t been supplied by a variety of schools.

Taylor said that she believes the requirements are fair, even though some of the rejected schools have complained about the process.

“I don’t know if [the rejected schools] want people to side with them on their right to open a school or if they want to be on the side of children getting a quality education,” Taylor said.

Fuller said the changes represented a chance to increase support for the choice program among Milwaukee legislators and with the governor. “I believe that’s critical to the long-term sustainability of the program,” Fuller said.

But Peterson said the new accountability measures aren’t addressing the deeper issues plaguing Milwaukee’s schools. “What’s still being left out of the discussion is that we are moving toward a dual school system where the harder-to-educate kids find themselves in the Milwaukee Public Schools while the others are in the voucher schools,” Peterson said.

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