A new Wisconsin bill will further hide the state's voucher schools in a cloak of secrecy.
On Friday, June 9, the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Education voted 4-3 to approve a bill introduced just a few days before that would roll back accountability measures applying to private Wisconsin voucher schools receiving state money. A full vote is expected in the Wisconsin Senate this week.
Senate Bill 293 would remove requirements that apply to the state's four voucher programs: a statewide program, a special needs scholarship program and two programs that are specific to Racine and Milwaukee. More than 90 percent of voucher schools in Wisconsin are religious.
The bill would repeal a current requirement that voucher schools demonstrate they are advancing the education of students. Voucher schools would no longer have to fulfill one of the following each year: a) at least 70 percent of students advance one grade level; b) the school's average attendance is at least 90 percent; c) at least 80 percent of students demonstrate significant academic progress; or d) at least 70 percent of the parents meet involvement criteria established by the school.
The bill reduces financial accountability by only requiring an audit in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles if the school receives more than $100,000 in vouchers in a year. There are a large number of schools receiving vouchers across the state under this threshold, so they would offer no public accountability if the bill becomes law.
In addition, the Department of Public Instruction would no longer receive school policies and academic standards each year. Instead, the department could request them as needed from individual schools. Because private schools are not subject to public records laws, this means these policies would no longer be available for the public to review.
"When taxpayers are footing the bill, we must have some means of ensuring transparency," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Religious schools want public money but do not want to comply with even minimal accountability standards."
The bill does include some reform measures that allow for the Department of Public Instruction to respond to fraud within the program. The state would be authorized to bar schools from participating in voucher programs if they are found to intentionally or negligently misrepresent information provided to the department. Under current law, the Department of Public Instruction can bar a school from participating only if the school makes misrepresentations related to the school's financial viability or its local certificate of occupancy.
But even with these provisos, the bill is decidedly a step in the wrong direction. The Legislature can — and should — adopt the reforms without using them as a ruse to pass a raft of bad rules. The Wisconsin Senate will serve the state well by scuttling an attempt to enable voucher schools to escape public scrutiny.