Friday, October 19, 2007

Sorry record of vouchers

There aren't many other school voucher programs to look at and compare Utah's law to -- only limited programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and, to some extent, the state of Florida.

Curious, I looked at the records of those programs and found:

1) No one can say definitively that students do better in voucher schools than in public schools. Two reports published in the past month both reiterate what most independent researchers have found (independent means not paid to draw conclusions) -- students do about the same in voucher schools than similar students in public schools. (You can see the research here and here).

2) A draft report from the General Accounting Office on the Washington, D.C. program found that students are, in fact, being HARMED in voucher schools. That's because they have been placed in schools that do NOT have to meet standards for teacher training or even safety requirements. (The story is here).

3) In 2005, the state Legislature in Wisconsin required Milwaukee voucher schools to report how students were doing on standardized tests. Now, mind you,lawmakers didn't impose one test or another, they simply asked for a report on how voucher students were doing. As of August of this year, one year after the deadline for the first academic achievement report, the voucher schools had not submitted test results. (This story can be found here.)

A state Senator on the Legislative Audit Committee said:

"Wisconsin taxpayers will shell out $246 million for the voucher program over the next two years and they deserve to know how these schools are performing," Decker says.

4) There are a lot of horror stories of schools opened by zealots or by craven embezzlers that have led to school closures in Cleveland, Milwaukee AND Florida.
Here are some examples from Milwaukee:

"In just the last 8 months, three schools have been ordered out of the voucher program and a fourth is now under investigation. These schools were created in response to the voucher program and did not exist prior to its start. Here are some of the details:

•Alex’s Academics of Excellence in Milwaukee received $2.8 million in voucher money over three years despite the fact that the school’s founder and chief executive officer was convicted of rape in the 1970s. The school principal had been fired from the public school system after being accused of inappropriate behavior with female students. Teachers at the school went unpaid, and former school administrators and teachers say employees smoked marijuana at the school and carried around crack cocaine. The school was evicted from its building and owed more than $50,000 in overdue rent. The school was ordered out of the voucher program in July 2004. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, June 15, 2003; Sept. 15, 2003;
Jan. 27, 2005)

•The Mandella School of Science and Math signed up more than 200 students who never showed up and then cashed $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks, which the principal used to buy two Mercedes vehicles. In the meantime the school did not pay many of its teachers, vendors or the landlord. Prior to the fraud finding, many of the school’s teacher had already quit complaining that they were not paid and that the school had no formal curriculum. In closing the school, the Circuit Judge stated “We have all failed these children” and appointed a former judge to find new schools for these children. A woman with a grandson in the school stated, “I’m upset, mad and angry. These kids have been misled. My son might have to repeat a grade.” The school was ordered out of the voucher program in July 2004. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Feb. 16, 2004; Feb. 192004; and Jan. 27, 2005)

•Academic Solutions Center for Learning, one of the largest and fastest growing schools in the voucher program, was closed due to unsafe conditions and is now under investigation for fraud. Five student fights occurred in a recent two-month period. At the last fight in January 2005, no teachers had been present all day because teachers had not been paid. In their absence, several students in a classroom began fighting, which spread to the common area of the school. The melee involved over 100 students and it took 15 police officers an hour and a half to stop the fighting. The school, with 396 students,operated in a building with an occupancy permit for no more than 200 students. The state is now investigating fraud at the school. A state preliminary audit found improper student applications, inappropriate cashing of 300 voucher checks worth $430,000 that should have been returned to the state and inaccurate student counts submitted by the school.
(Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jan. 27, 2005; Feb. 10, 2005)"

By design, Utah's voucher law has minimal oversight. Voucher students do not take the same tests as public school students, so comparing how each group performs will be impossible. Financial audits are only required every FIVE years, so discovering fraud could take a long time. Teachers in voucher schools do not have to even have a college degree. The requirement for schools is that they enroll "more than 40 students" leaving a lot of safety questions unanswered.

Additionally, the voucher law SPECIFICALLY states that no one can impose any more standards than the meager ones listed in the bill.

In that light, I am going to look closer still at the few other voucher programs that exist. So far it doesn't seem they've been all that successful.

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