Over the past 10 years, Wisconsin taxpayers have paid about $139 million to private schools that were subsequently barred from the state’s voucher system for failing to meet requirements related to finances, accreditation, student safety and auditing, a State Journal review has found.

More than two-thirds of the 50 schools terminated from the state’s voucher system since 2004 — all in Milwaukee — had stayed open for five years or less, according to the data provided by the state Department of Public Instruction. Eleven schools, paid a total of $4.1 million, were terminated from the voucher program after just one year.

Northside High School, for example, received $1.7 million in state vouchers for low-income students attending the private school before being terminated from the program in its first year in 2006 for failing to provide an adequate curriculum.

The data highlight the challenges the state faces in requiring accountability from private schools in the voucher program, which expanded from just Milwaukee and Racine to a statewide program last school year. The issue has emerged as a key area of disagreement between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Mary Burke, a Madison School Board member, in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.

Last school year, there were 108 schools and about 25,000 students participating in the Milwaukee voucher program, and 146 voucher schools total. The state has budgeted about $210 million for all voucher schools for the current school year, compared to around $4.4 billion in general aid for public schools.

In an interview, Burke said the spending data on terminated schools illustrates the need to scale back the program, which she has said repeatedly she would do if elected.

“I’m shocked that the program has continued to be expanded without the type of accountability that really needs to be there,” said Burke.

A Walker campaign spokeswoman declined to make the governor available for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions.

Walker has said he supports subjecting all schools that receive taxpayer money to the same level of scrutiny and has supported legislation aimed at doing that in the past legislative session, including giving report cards to all public, charter and private voucher schools. Lawmakers debated placing sanctions on poorly performing public and private schools that receive taxpayer money, but those measures were not adopted.

Burke said she also “absolutely” would support more accountability or penalties for private voucher schools that have operated for just one year.

Currently, schools wishing to participate in the program must meet requirements for the training of their staff, obtain academic accreditation, present a complete budget and submit information to DPI about their governing body or policies and contract with a third-party service to handle payroll taxes.

A good system would require private schools wishing to participate in the taxpayer-subsidized program to have a track record of successfully operating a school, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, such as requiring schools to be open for at least one or two years before being admitted into the voucher program.

“I think the theory is, have a little higher standards for people to get in the program so you can have more assurance that they will be successful,” he said.

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, said legislation passed in the past legislative session does just that by requiring schools to gain accreditation and have detailed plans for curriculum, budgeting and staffing before they can be admitted into the program.

“We wanted to have a very specific policy for brand new schools that are starting up. And those are the ones that have the most difficulty, and for good reason; starting a school is a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

That legislation also requires private voucher and independent charter schools to provide student information and test results to the state by the beginning of next school year. It did not make any changes to how the state’s school report cards are determined, however — something Bender supports, especially if the program expands.

“We need to start with not just transparency but quality transparency,” he said. “You need to have a report card that’s actually reflective of what they are doing (in the school). Right now it’s just telling you what student body you have.”

But he agreed that schools that can’t successfully use taxpayer money to educate their students “should be kicked out of the program” and should not have been allowed in to begin with.

Some schools were overpaid

Of the schools that have been terminated from the program, a handful are also on the state Department of Revenue’s delinquent taxpayer list for not repaying overpayments from the state based on enrollment projections that turned out to be too high. In all, those schools owe $253,000.

Recouping money sent to shuttered schools isn’t a feasible option, since the money is gone, Bender and Olsen said.

Bender said the money was used for educating children and not squandered, in most cases.

“The idea that you would go back and get money that was used for education is a misguided perception,” he said.

Bender warned against assuming that, because some schools closed, the entire system has failed. He said when poor-performing schools close, the students who attended those schools can move to a school that is meeting requirements. He also noted that spending money on failed schools hasn’t been limited to voucher schools: Last year, for example, taxpayers spent about $361 million operating 52 low-performing public schools in Milwaukee in which 10 percent or fewer of the students were considered proficient on state tests.

Burke said she would make Milwaukee’s education system a priority if elected, because it lays the foundation to the state’s economy.

“As governor, I want to take on the educational challenges in Milwaukee — we’ve got to do better, a lot better. And let’s put aside the divisiveness between charters and vouchers and public schools. That is the landscape. But let’s make it work,” she said.

“We’re not getting the job done in Milwaukee. The greater Milwaukee area is nearly a third of the state’s economy and for Wisconsin to have a thriving economy, we need to have a strong, thriving Milwaukee economy,” Burke said.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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