Opponents of Wisconsin’s school choice programs once again seek to lure others to their cause with the siren song of accountability.  Assisted by shoddy reporting, they are spreading the inaccurate message that public funds are supporting unaccountable, unregulated private schools.

Numerous requirements, outlined below, contradict these claims.  But their existence is largely unknown to Journal Sentinel readers.  Nor are readers aware that legislative amendments to the choice program in 2003, 2005, and 2009, mostly proposed by school choice supporters, led to the removal of 41 schools and prevented another 131 schools from entering the program.  

These facts notwithstanding, the Milwaukee teachers union and its ilk have clear goals in advancing the accountability fiction. They want to keep school choice from expanding beyond Milwaukee and Racine.  They want to block attempts to address Doyle administration cuts in choice funding.

Lazy journalism helps their cause.  Consider three recent passages in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 
  • On January 19 a columnist asked:  "[W]hat, if anything, will [Governor Walker do] to increase accountability and quality in voucher schools?"
  • On January 25 an education reporter wrote:  "Sending more aid… to [private] voucher schools…that don’t have the same accountability requirements as public schools has been a point of contention."  
  • The same reporter on January 30 forecast a "ramped up" debate about:  "funding voucher schools and measures to hold them accountable."
None of the three stories include a word of description as to how schools in choice programs are regulated.  The narrative thus leaves little room for doubt that something must be done to improve "accountability." With no facts to get in the way, readers could be forgiven for accepting this premise. 
While it sounds old-fashioned, journalists once aimed to provide context in reporting such issues.  In newsrooms where I worked, editors would quiz reporters who did not do so.  In this case, they would ask:  How are schools in the choice program regulated?  What supports the claim that they aren’t accountable?  

At today’s Journal Sentinel, that approach appears quaint.

Here is a condensed summary of the extensive regulatory system governing private schools in Wisconsin’s choice programs.  Its scope and impact will come as news to Journal Sentinel readers.

Academics
  • Students take the same tests as public school students. (In the most rigorous study ever conducted of a choice program, independent scholars found that Milwaukee choice students did as well or better than MPS students on such tests.)
  • Schools must adopt academic standards in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history. 
  • Schools must adopt criteria for granting a high school diploma. (The independent study of the Milwaukee program found that students in the choice program graduated at higher rates than did MPS students.)

Accreditation

Schools must be accredited by the Wisconsin North Central Association, the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Accreditation, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, or the Archdiocese or diocese in which the school is located.  (MPS is not required to meet accreditation standards.)

Student Admissions

Private schools must accept pupils on a random basis (a practice neither required nor followed in many MPS schools).

Health, Safety, and Administration

Schools in choice programs provide the Department of Public Instruction with:
  • A certificate of compliance with health and safety codes. 
  • Evidence of financial viability, consistent with extensive DPI rules. (Imagine MPS trying to comply before Act 10).
  • Proof that the school has participated in a fiscal management training program approved by DPI.
  • A budget showing anticipated enrollments, estimated revenues and costs, and a schedule of monthly cash flow requirements.
Schools also must:
  • Provide an independent audit showing compliance with fiscal and internal controls required by DPI.
  • Comply with extensive insurance and fidelity bond requirements specified by statute and by DPI. 
  • Provide a written risk management and insurance evaluation by a risk or insurance consultant.
  • Provide an independent audit verification of enrollments reported to the state.
The "accountability" debate begs several questions.  What evidence supports the value of the vast DPI regulatory scheme imposed on MPS and other public schools? If school quality and state regulation are linked, why are a majority of Wisconsin public school students not proficient when measured against national academic criteria?  Why do supposedly unaccountable schools in the choice program do as well or better than MPS while receiving less than half of the MPS per pupil funding?

It’s probably too much to expect the Journal Sentinel to address those issues.  But it would be nice if the paper at least followed the Journalism 101 standard of reporting both sides of the issue.

A former journalist, George Mitchell is an education and public policy consultant.. In 1984, Democratic Wisconsin Governor Anthony Earl named him to chair a commission that studied public schools in metropolitan Milwaukee.