School For Scandal: Milwaukee's Failed Voucher 'Experiment' Should Be Shut Down

Milwaukee's private-school voucher plan has been a disaster.

Youngsters attending the LaBrew Troopers Military University School in Milwaukee had a tough time of things.

Often they were forced to carry their desks over their heads. One student who wasn't well fell asleep in class and had a pitcher of water poured over his head. Several students, including one who is just six years old, said that if they broke the school's rules, they were punished by having their arms twisted behind their backs until they said, "I give." A nine-year-old girl said she was punished by being forced to carry around a bag of sand. Others were made to do push-ups on milk crates until their arms throbbed.

That a private school like this could exist is bad enough – but brace yourself because the story gets worse: Since 2003, the LaBrew School has received more than $4.5 million in taxpayer subsidies under Milwaukee's voucher program.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported yesterday that the school suspended operations last month after a dispute over state aid. Since then, parents have been coming forth with horror stories.

Tabitha Watkins enrolled her three children in the school, believing the emphasis on discipline would be good for them. She soon came to regret it. "It's been nothing but misery," Watkins told the newspaper.

Other parents complained that the school's academic program was sub-par. State officials were clueless because there is no requirement that voucher schools report on student performance.

As the Journal-Sentinel reported, "State regulation allows almost no oversight over the programs in the private schools, short of the health or safety of students being threatened. LaBrew is not required to release any information on test scores or other data about student performance, and it has not done so."

Milwaukee's voucher program has been in place since 1990. Originally limited to non-sectarian private schools, it was later modified to permit religious institutions to take part. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998 upheld the scheme, despite clear language in the state constitution barring public funds going "for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries."

State officials are finally talking about bringing some regulation into the program. That would be a great idea if it would spare families the type of pain Watkins and others went through. But I'm afraid it's just too late. Rather than begin regulating voucher schools, Wisconsin lawmakers should just shut down the program.

Why? Because it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.

A recent battery of studies of the Milwaukee scheme by University of Arkansas researchers found that voucher students are doing no better academically than their peers in public schools. Another report actually found that the percentage of fourth-graders in voucher schools meeting the state's definition of proficiency in reading and math was actually lower than percentages for public school fourth-graders. (By eighth grade, the two were the same.)

The study did find that many voucher schools educate children for less money than the public schools. That's not surprising. How much money do you think institutions like the LaBrew Troopers Military University School spend on the kids?

Also, one study found that 94 percent of Milwaukee's public school teachers are state certified. The voucher schools have a lower rate of 69 percent. With a cheaper school comes the possibility of less-qualified teachers.

The Journal-Sentinel article about the studies reports, "[T]he finding that voucher students weren't really doing any better is probably not good news for advocates of a program that was envisioned in 1990 by backers as a powerful way to raise overall education results."

Gee, do you think?

Bottom line: This plan has been a disaster. It hasn't improved academic performance, it leaves vulnerable children in bad schools and it violates the religious liberty rights of the taxpayers.

Three strikes and you're out. Milwaukee's voucher "experiment" has failed. It's time to shut it down.