With “National School Choice Week” upon us, it is a fitting time to take a look at Wisconsin’s failed voucher program. The abrupt closure of LifeSkills Academy, a Christian school in Milwaukee, is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Wisconsin’s voucher system is broken and cannot be repaired.
At its core, the voucher system is a backdoor means to fund religious schools with taxpayer money instead of public schools. The expansion of vouchers statewide highlights this fact. All of the new schools, 25 out of 25, are Christian schools.
Notably, the one Islamic school and two Jewish schools that applied for state approval were not able to garner as many applicants as the 18 Catholic schools and seven other Christian schools now receiving taxpayer money. Only parents in the religious majority were able to send their children to a denominational “choice” school.
This flawed program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and its equivalent in the Wisconsin Constitution: Article 1, Section 18.
While the legality and feasibility of statewide vouchers have not been tested, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been tested. It is the long-est running voucher program in the country. What have we learned? Wisconsin taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to dozens of incompetent religious schools that do not provide a comprehensive education.
Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy, which received $2.3 million in state voucher money since 2008, shut down suddenly in mid-December. A priest in charge of the building that was rented by the school said that the school’s operators moved out “in the dead of the night.” Families of students were left scrambling to find a new school.
LifeSkills students had struggled with basic reading and math, with only one of the 56 students testing proficient in either subject on 2012 state exams. Despite their poor operation of the Milwaukee school, Taron and Rodney Monroe opened LifeSkills Academy II in Florida last year and bragged about their ability to get government grants for religious schools.
LifeSkills Academy is merely one of many inept Milwaukee voucher schools. Department of Public Instruction testing data published last year showed that Milwaukee Public School students outperform voucher students in reading and math. Looking past the averages, the data reveals that entire voucher schools lack basic skills.
Carter’s Christian Academy and Daughters of the Father Christian Academy are two Milwaukee schools that rely almost entirely on taxpayer funding. Daughters of the Father promotes itself as “specializing in reading and math.” Of the 92 students tested in 2012 at Daughters of the Father, only one tested proficient in reading and two tested proficient in math.
At Carter’s Christian Academy, none of the 85 students tested proficient in reading and only one tested proficient in math. Between the two schools, 81% are classified as having “minimal” skills in reading and 75% have minimal math skills.
It is understandable that students attending these schools are struggling, given the fundamentalist curriculum that is being taught in what are generally considered secular subjects. Information available on each school’s website makes it clear that they both utilize curriculum provided by A Beka Books, a publisher of fundamentalist Christian textbooks. A Beka has promoted its materials by saying that textbook writers “do not paraphrase progressive education textbooks and add biblical principles” but instead “create textbooks from a biblical worldview, built upon the firm foundation of Scriptural truth.”
A profile of the 2011-12 curriculum on the Daughters of the Father website includes revisionist history lessons from A Beka Books, creationism instruction in science classes and health class instruction for seventh and eighth graders on “sins such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality.”
It matters what is taught in taxpayer-funded schools. No parental “choice” on where to send a child for school should mean that all taxpayers pick up the tab for fundamentally flawed schooling by educators who are incompetent. It is expected that the Milwaukee voucher program will cost $161 million this school year alone.
With vouchers, there are no assurances that educators are answerable to the citizens who ultimately write the checks. They are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents. There are virtually no protections to ensure that students are receiving a sound education.
Voucher supporters will be unable to offer reforms that guarantee another LifeSkills Academy debacle will not happen again. Moving students around in the middle of a school year like they are chess pieces is absolutely disruptive to student learning and will continue under a voucher system.
Any additional accountability measures for voucher schools that are put into place cannot fix a fundamentally broken program.
Patrick Elliott is a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.