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Vouchers, Accountability, and Money

A Rethinking Schools Editorial

At the same time that demands for accountability and testing are increasing for public schools, private voucher schools get off scot free. The voucher schools argue that because they are private, they get to play by different rules than the public schools (even though some voucher schools do not have a single student privately paying tuition.) As a result, voucher schools do not have to provide any data on test scores or academic achievement — or even measure their students' progress if they don't want to. Nor do voucher schools have to release basic data such as the racial or gender breakdown of their students.

Because there is no true public oversight or accountability, no one really knows how the voucher schools are performing. As state report last year pointedly noted, "some hopes for the [voucher] program — most notably that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement — cannot be documented."

Private voucher schools are also allowed to circumvent basic constitutional protections such as free speech, due process, and equal protection. They also argue they are exempt from state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy, and marital or parental status.

Lesson Number Two: Vouchers divert money away from public schools.

The Milwaukee voucher program, which is costing $49 million this year, is not funded separately by the state of Wisconsin. Instead, the voucher money comes out of state dollars earmarked for public schools. Half the money comes out of state aid going to Milwaukee schools, half from school districts throughout Wisconsin.

Districts are able to make up that lost state aid — but here's the catch. They are allowed to do so only by raising local property taxes. (This scheme was enacted by legislators who meanwhile complain about high taxes for public schools.) Furthermore, at the same time that public dollars are going to private voucher schools, the state has imposed spending limits on public schools. In the case of Milwaukee Public Schools, this led to $31 million in program cuts last year, and an estimated $14 million this year.

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