MADISON, Wis. – It’s hardly a secret that Dr. Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, loathes the state’s private school voucher initiative, and has consistently campaigned against expansion of the program.
As lawmakers this summer contemplated taking the voucher program statewide, Evers urged local school leaders to campaign against the expansion, claiming “our children are caught in the crossfire of an ideologically driven expansion of school vouchers that is financially reckless and academically unproven.” Many of them followed his advice.
Evers’ obvious hatred toward private school vouchers begs a simple question: How can someone with so much aggression against private schools be trusted to fairly oversee the voucher program?
The short answer is he can’t. Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction use their power to harass and intimidate private schools in the voucher program, according to various officials. Their allegations are outlined in a new report from EAGnews and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) titled “DPI’s War on Wisconsin’s School Choice Program.”
Our research reveals a pattern of abuse by DPI officials against voucher schools. Many officials have shared stores about the department using its regulatory powers to intimidate and harass voucher schools and their officials.
In one sense, the bullying tactics have been quite successful. None of the educators, administrators, auditors or parents EAGnews contacted would agree to be identified, out of concern that DPI would retaliate by delaying school funding, or with some other devious method.
“I have to say I’m nervous that if I come out against DPI, they will retaliate,” one high-level administrator at a Milwaukee choice school said. “They could find any reason to hold our first (state funding) check. One month of holding our check back and it would be a huge pain.”
Regardless, many involved in the choice programs were eager to highlight the unfair treatment and bureaucratic hostility they’ve faced at the hands of DPI officials. We chose to let them tell their stories anonymously, rather than allow this important story to go completely unreported.
Manipulating the rules
Several choice school administrators contend Evers and DPI abuse their authority by imposing double standards for public and private schools.
For instance, DPI officials require schools in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs to test every student in grades 3-10 with the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, regardless of how long students have been enrolled. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, are not required to report scores for students who have been in the district less than a full academic year.
The obvious disadvantage is the low scores of students who transfer to voucher schools from public schools are tied to the former, although they’re often a more accurate reflection of the latter. Public schools get a year to work with transferring students before they must report their test results.
DPI officials took the testing bias a bit further this year when they changed the way scores were released to the public. In the past, DPI officials reported overall scores from public schools, as well as a subsample of scores from students who come from the same socio-economic conditions as voucher students, who are all low-income because of the voucher requirements.
This year, DPI omitted the subsample in an attempt to convince the public Milwaukee’s traditional government schools outperform voucher schools. Coincidently or not, the results were announced as state lawmakers began discussions on expanding the choice program statewide.
DPI’s misleading test results run counter to several respected academic studies that prove voucher students are excelling in comparison to students from similar backgrounds in Milwaukee’s public schools.
DPI’s abuse of authority appears to extend into its role of policing compliance with federal regulations and distributing federal grant money. One choice school administrator pointed to the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC) grant as an example.
The program is supposedly open to public school districts, private schools, charter schools, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations and other public or private entities that serve a high proportion of low-income students.
CLC grants are typically $100,000 a year for five years. During the application process, DPI uses mostly public school teachers and officials who break into groups and score submissions based on a rubric provided by DPI. Those reviewers forward their recommendations to DPI staffers, which ultimately decide which schools receive funds and which don’t.
The process has not worked well for choice schools, which started applying for the federal money about a decade ago. Applications from non-government schools “pretty unilaterally … have been rejected,” a source said, and a search on a federal database for CLC grants seems to confirm that claim.
EAGnews searched the Profile and Performance Information Collection System website – the online database for tracking CLC data – and found no private schools were awarded CLC grants in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2012. Last year only one private school, Milwaukee’s Messmer High School, made the cut, and it appears to be the only private school on the list this year.
“It’s really just a smoke and mirrors game,” a source said. “DPI staff has final authority. They look over reviewer comments and veto things they don’t want funded. The evaluation by the reviewer doesn’t hold any weight; it’s effectively an advisory statement.”
DPI even rejected a CLC grant application this summer from St. Anthony’s school in Milwaukee, the largest single school serving low-income students in the state. Ironically, DPI’s rejection letter to St. Anthony’s was sent June 5, the same day the state senate approved changes to expand the voucher program statewide.
The federal Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant is another example. In theory, the physical education grant is open to all schools, but local districts and DPI prioritize private schools behind public schools when making selections for the grant money, choice school officials contend.
Wisconsin’s private schools “are losing … millions of dollars because of the way DPI and (local public school districts) are manipulating how the funds are distributed,” a high-level voucher school administrator told EAGnews.
Perhaps the least visible, but most effective, method DPI has used to hold down choice schools is through numerous audits and questionable interpretation of state laws it uses to regulate the choice program.
Independent auditors interviewed by EAGnews all agreed that throughout the existence of the voucher program DPI has steadily increased and changed reporting requirements in ways that cause unnecessary burden on participating schools, or limit student enrollment.
“DPI has gone out of its way in almost every instance possible to make our program hard to manage,” one voucher school administrator said.
DPI officials in the past have denied student voucher applications when a parent inadvertently forgot to include a middle initial, or accidently changed other aspects of their child’s application from the previous year, according to school officials. They’ve required parents to submit applications for each child in the household and required the signatures of both biological parents, even in cases where one parent is in prison, or the child was conceived as a result of rape, they said.
DPI officials have interpreted household income to include all adults in the same dwelling, whether or not they contribute to the student’s livelihood, and considered the income of parents who have traditionally failed to provide financial support.
In previous budget cycles, voucher school officials successfully lobbied the legislature to rectify some of DPI’s illogical regulations, but they claim DPI officials quickly imposed new and even more arduous requirements.
In a required quarterly meeting in Racine this February between choice school representatives, DPI officials and independent auditors, DPI staff insisted that all student applications submitted for the choice program must be accompanied by tax returns signed and dated by both parents of each student – a first for the Racine program, a source said. That new regulation threatened to void numerous applications because the notice came after schools’ official enrollment periods had already ended.
Choice school leaders strongly contested the new requirement, and DPI officials eventually caved and set it aside for this school year, though it will be a requirement in the future.
At another meeting in Milwaukee in May, DPI officials concocted another disturbing requirement: all participating voucher schools must submit the home addresses of all governing board members, something auditors claim isn’t required by statute and could lead to harassment of the officials.
“That’s not in statute … it even exceeds federal tax standards,” an independent choice school auditor told EAGnews. “People’s personal addresses should not be put out there for public viewing. That’s how people end up getting picketed for weeks on end.”
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty explains that Evers derives his authority to supervise public schools from the state Constitution.
The superintendent’s ability to make education policy through DPI is, however, supposed to be tied to statute. Throughout Wisconsin’s history, WILL points out, the legislature has repeatedly refined, broadened or restricted DPI’s power over a variety of aspects of education, from teacher licensing to public libraries.
“The superintendent’s ability to make policy can be summed up as: ‘if the legislature giveth, it can taketh,’” WILL concludes.
Many believe DPI’s biased oversight of the Milwaukee and Racine parental choice programs warrants a thorough audit of the department’s powers by the state legislature, with the goal of ensuring its authority is justified by statute and to consider how Evers has used his powers.
The legislature can reassert control over the regulatory process to guarantee private schools in the state’s voucher program are treated fairly and equitably. The recent decision by lawmakers to expand the program statewide makes such a review especially important.
Meanwhile, voucher school administrators and parents would be wise to publicize the impact the choice programs are having on the lives of students each day. The more the public understands how the voucher program is helping students succeed, particularly low-income minority students that seem to struggle the most, the less likely the public will tolerate the unfair treatment and bureaucratic hostility DPI and Evers inflict on choice schools.