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Common Myths in Wisconsin's School Choice Programs

There are several myths associated with the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program commonly used to try to discredit the program. The following section counters those myths with facts about the program.

1. Myth: Schools in Wisconsin's school choice programs are not accountable.

 This is not true.

Schools in the program are required to adhere to dozens of requirements. Some are different than public school requirements  because they were designed to target specific problems and to remove poorly performing schools from the program.

This does improve school quality. In many instances the targeted accountability measures that schools participating in Wisconsin's school choice programs must meet are stricter than the standards public schools must meet.

It also is important to point out that while participating private schools per-pupil voucher is less than half of the per-pupil MPS aid, the schools must adhere to regulations with significant financial costs that MPS schools do not face.

Key provisions include:

• Completing an annual independent financial audit, which is reviewed by the Department of Public Instruction, ensuring that every public dollar is accounted for;

• Complying with accreditation and pre-accreditation requirements;

• Taking the same state test (WKCE) as public schools and publically releasing the results;

• Requiring teachers to have a Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution and teacher's aids to have a high school diploma;

• Providing evidence of fiscal viability and following sound fiscal practices, which is reviewed by the Department of Public Instruction;

• Adhering to the “Bad Actor Provision”, which disallows school administrators and other individuals from participating in a school choice program for seven years if DPI removes the school from the program;

Providing information on school policies, non-profit status, and board members to parents and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

• Meeting annual attendance, achievement, or parental involvement requirements;

• Complying with all applicable health and safety codes; and

• Following all public school standards for hours of instruction and comply with curriculum requirements.

According to the School Choice Demonstration Project:

68 percent of teachers that teach in MPCP schools are certified by DPI;
• 74 percent of schools have music programs;
• 76 percent of schools have programs for students with learning disabilities; and
• More than half of the schools have AP classes, offer foreign language, and after school programs.

Milwaukee Public Schools are not required to meet the requirements described in more detail below.

Financial Viability Requirements

All schools in a parental choice program must provide to DPI comprehensive evidence of sound fiscal practices and an independent financial audit completed by a certified public accountant.
As a result, from 2003-2008, DPI rejected 96 applications for new schools and removed 16 schools from the program.

In contrast, every school in MPS is not required to have an independent financial audit on a yearly basis. In fact, a recent article in the MJS[1] suggests that an audit is required in reaction to a problem that has already occurred in MPS, while participating private schools are required to have an independent audit as a preventive measure.

Accreditation and pre-accreditation Requirements

Schools participating in the program must apply for and obtain accreditation from an approved agency within three years of participation in Wisconsin's school choice programs. Non-accredited schools must obtain pre-accreditation before participating in the program.
Accreditation requires qualified teachers, an appropriate curriculum, accountable board governance; and a school environment conducive to learning. To date, DPI has removed 16 schools from the MPCP for failure to meet the accreditation requirements.Milwaukee Public Schools are not required to be accredited.

“Bad Actor” Provision

S. 119.23(10)(a)8. enacted in 2011, allows DPI to bar school leaders from participating in a choice program for seven years if the school fails to meet the required accountability standards. The provision ensures that such school leaders cannot continue to participate by simply transferring to another school or by establishing a new one. In the first year the provision was implemented, DPI placed eight individuals on the disqualified persons list for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Milwaukee Public Schools are not required to adhere to the Bad Actor Provision.


2. Myth: Schools in Wisconsin's school choice programs are not required to perform background checks.

 This is not true.

Schools in Wisconsin's school choice programs perform background checks on teachers, administrators, other school employees, and volunteers. The requirement is included in accreditation, pre-accreditation and insurance requirements.

This document already has outlined accreditation and pre-accrediation requirements. In addition, DPI administrative rule PI 35 requires schools in the program to carry specific levels of liability insurance to participate in the program.

The insurance companies such as Church Mutual and Catholic Mutual, accreditation agencies such as WRISA, and affiliated organizations such as the archdiocese or WELS require that schools perform background checks.

Most teachers in private schools are licensed by the state[2]. In these cases, DPI requires background checks when teaching licenses are renewed.

Schools perform their background checks through various agencies[3]. They use similar databases and have access to the same sources DPI uses to perform background checks with one exception.

According to a memo to then Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald by the Wisconsin Legislative Council

It appears that, because DPI consults sources that are also generally available to the public or specifically to businesses or organizations that deal with children; a private school may obtain substantially the same information regarding an individual’s criminal conviction history as DPI obtains for license applicants. The only exception to this is the NASDTEC Clearinghouse Database. States subscribe to this database and it contains information on actions relating to teachers licenses. [See] It appears that a private school would not have access to this database. In addition, if a private school teacher has never held a teacher’s license, he or she would not appear in the database.


[2] According to the DPI website “The Department of Public Instruction is required by law to conduct a background check on each applicant for a Wisconsin educator license, each time the person applies, whether it is an initial request or a renewal request.” For example the archdiocese requires its schools to hire licensed teachers or to establish a plan for its teachers to become licensed.  Additionally, the written policies of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee require that “any offer of employment from a Catholic parish or school in which the employee’s regular responsibilities include contact with children will be contingent upon the results of a criminal background check.”  This means that DPI already conducts background checks on licensed teachers that teach in private schools in the MPCP and will conduct additional background checks when teachers apply to renew their teaching license every five years. This is the same process that licensed public school teachers go through.     

[3] Agencies include private agencies, which are accredited by the Background Screening Agency Accreditation Program such as Lexis Nexis, The Department of Justice, and private agencies recommended by a school’s insurance company. These agencies perform Social Security trace/validations, criminal county searches, civil searches, criminal statewide searches, criminal multi-state searches, sex offender searches, federal searches (criminal and civil), education verification searches, and employment verification searches. 

3. Myth: Wisconsin's school choice schools can kick students out and keep the funding.

 This is not true.

First, the law requires a school that participates in the program to accept all students that apply and meet residency and income requirements. If applications exceed seats available, the school must randomly select students and establish a waiting list[4].

Schools can suspend or expel students only if the school has a policy in place that applies to all students at the school, including private pay students. Once a student is enrolled in the school, he or she is bound by school policies and procedures regarding suspension or expulsion. By law, the school must make available a copy of the policies and procedures to the parents and must submit those policies to the Department of Public Instruction[5].

If a school does suspend or expel a student, it does not keep the annual voucher amount.

Schools in Wisconsin's school choice programs receive four monthly installments in September, November, February, and May just as public schools do. The first two payments are generated by the third Friday in September enrollment count date, and the last two payments are generated by the second Friday in January enrollment count date. Students that leave or are expelled prior to a count date will not generate payments for that count.


[4] s. 119.23(3)(a)

[5] s. 119.23 (6m)

4. Myth: Wisconsin's school choice program includes many “fly-by-night” schools.

 This is not true.

Targeted regulation has given DPI the tools to remove many low performing schools from the program. At the same time, high quality schools have grown. For example:

• St. Anthony School is Wisconsin’s largest K-12 school and the largest K-12 Catholic school in the country with an enrollment well over 1500 students, up from 192 students in its first year of participation.

• St. Marcus, founded in 1875, serves almost 600 students in grades K3 through eight, up from 64 students in its first year.

• LUMIN Schools, founded 2002, serves grades four through eight in five locations with over 1,050 students, up from 132 students at two schools when it joined the program.

• HOPE Christian Schools was founded in 2002 with 50 students. Today, HOPE operates four schools in Milwaukee’s and serves over 1,200 students.

It also is important to note that some  schools serve highly specialized purposes. For example, Right Step Inc, is a military school that participates in the MPCP. It was established in 2007. Right Step takes students that likely would be in jail otherwise and works with youth displaying “at-risk” behaviors to motivate them toward more positive outcomes.

5. Myth: MPS students outperform MPCP students.

 This is not true.

In fact, the SCDP[6] found:

• MPCP students demonstrated a level of achievement growth in reading that was significantly higher than the matched sample of MPS students on the WKCE tests in the final year of the SCDP study;

• Students in the MPCP have higher graduation rates than similar students in MPS:MPCP students were four percentage points more likely ever to have graduated from high school than their MPS counterparts; and MPCP students were seven percentage points more likely to have graduated in four years (on time) than their MPS counterparts.

• MPCP students were four percentage points more likely to have enrolled in a four-year college or university than similar MPS students; and

• MPCP students persisted in college through their first year at a rate of six percentage points higher than similar MPS students.



6. Myth: Wisconsin's school choice programs drain funds from public schools.

 This is not true.

This assertion assumes that taxpayer funding belongs to public schools even when they do not educate students who choose to leave. Interestingly, the argument occurs when a student moves to an independent charter or private school but not when a student moves from one public school district to another.

The financial impact on a public school district is softened by the way the school aid formula works. Public school districts, including MPS, receive funding based on a three-year rolling average because public schools are funded based on their three-year average membership numbers rather than their actual annual enrollment. Specifically, the number of pupils for which the district receives funding is based on the average of a district’s third Friday count membership in the current year and the previous two years. This means that after a student leaves, the public school receives partial funding for a student that it no longer educates for three years after the student leaves the district. This is not because of the choice program – this policy was designed to provide a buffer for smaller districts in the western part of the state that were losing enrollment.

However, if a student in the parental choice program leaves a private school, funding for that student stops as soon as the student is no longer counted in school enrollment. 

7. Myth: Private schools in Wisconsin's parental choice programs do not accept students with special needs.

 This is not true.

The keys to understanding the differences between private and public schools are that:

• Public schools have different procedures for identifying students with specials needs and more resources to help them. (A student in a public school with special needs will have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). When parents choose to place a child in a private school, they give up their right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Instead, a student may receive a services plan through the local school district. However, very little money is allocated to private school students for services plans so the majority of students that go through the process are put on a waiting list and never receive services. This is a disincentive to seek services plans[7].

• Private schools lack the incentives to label students and are more likely to treat them like other students in the school. The SCDP study[8] found that most private schools lack the incentives, personnel, protocols, and organizational culture that lead public school systems to label students with disabilities as requiring special education services. Private schools often hesitate to count a student as having a disability, but that does not mean they do not enroll students who would be formally designated as students with special needs if they were in public schools.

The actual facts about specials needs students in private schools are often ignored or misstated.

Schools participating in Wisconsin's school choice program do accept special needs students. According to a study by the SCDP[9], between 7.5 percent and 14.6 percent of students in the MPCP alone have disabilities that would qualify them for special education services in MPS. This compares to a rate of 19% in MPS. 


• 14.6% of the MPCP students from 2006-2010 were classified as participating in special education while in MPS.
• 7.5% of all MPCP students were classified as having disabilities when the study used MPS administrator designations for students who spent any time in MPS and MPCP administrator designations for students who always remained in MPCP.
• 11.4% of MPCP students were described by their parents as having disabilities, based on responses to parent surveys.

All of these numbers are significantly higher than DPI’s claims that only 1.6% of MPCP have special needs. The 1.6 % rate that DPI used came from the bubbling[10] method of counting students with special needs. Schools believed that if a student did not have an IEP, they could not identify the student as having a special need. As result the majority of special needs students in MPCP schools, including students at St. Coletta Day School of Milwaukee and Lutheran Special School and Education Services, two schools that only serve students with special needs, were not counted as having special needs.

Additionally, through site visits, the SCDP discovered how schools in MPCP serve students with disabilities.

They found that:

• Schools enroll kids with special needs, even some with severe disabilities (Down’s Syndrome, autism, emotional disturbance).
• Few MPCP schools formally classify any students as in special education (some principals stated that parents of students with disabilities switch their children to private schools from MPS specifically to escape the special education label).
• Most schools that were visited serve students with disabilities the same way they serve economically/educationally disadvantaged students (challenging educational program, extra time, individualized attention, Title I tutors, etc.).

The voucher amount of $6,442 was cited as the main reason students with severe disabilities do not enroll and could not be served effectively if they did.


[7] Only a small number of students who receive a services plan in a private school get services. Those that do get services from MPS are typically students who need speech therapy. Therefore a large number of parents choose to not go through the process. This turns into a catch 22. The funding allocated to parentally placed private school students with special needs is based on the number of students that go through the process to receive a services plan. However, because most students do not get services, the parents choose to not go through the process.



[10] DPI based their 1.6 percent rate on the number of students bubbled in on the WKCE standardized Wisconsin state test as having a special needs.

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