Milwaukee Paper Investigates Failed Voucher Programs

When four of Milwaukee's voucher-supported schools suddenly went out of business, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sent reporters out to the remaining schools. They wanted to see how the country's oldest voucher-schools programs were working. One of the reporters, Alan Borsuk, talks about what they found.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Milwaukee was the first city in America to offer parents school vouchers. The program is not only the oldest, starting back in 1990, it is the largest with 14,000 students attending private or religious schools with the help of vouchers. Over the past 18 months, however, four of those schools have gone out of business, leaving hundreds of students stranded during the academic year. To see how the remaining voucher schools are doing, the daily Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sent reporters out to visit every one of them. Alan Borsuk is one of those reporters.

Hello.

Mr. ALAN BORSUK (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So The Journal Sentinel this week is running a weeklong series on what you discovered, and I gather you got to all but a handful of the city's 115 schools that take vouchers. How many of those other schools had problems and were those problems similar to the schools that collapsed?

Mr. BORSUK: We didn't find any that were quite as severe as that. The bulk of the schools we went to were conventional Catholic and Lutheran schools. About 10 percent of the schools in the program, which would be, say, 10 to 15, presented issues, as we observed them, that I guess we labeled alarming is the best word we came up with.

MONTAGNE: Then take us along with you to one of those schools that really wasn't performing very well. What--you would walk in and what would you see?

Mr. BORSUK: Well, I was--I'll give you an example of one school I went to where one of the two operators said that God came to her in a vision and said, `You should open a school,' with this friend of hers. Neither of them have teaching license. Neither of them have a background in running schools. At the school itself, the building they were in was old and worn. There were very few textbooks. The number of students present was 50 to 60 percent of the number they were getting vouchers for, and they were unable to tell me in any clear way what their curriculum was or where they were getting materials from.

MONTAGNE: But there were kids obviously going to that school. Why were their parents sending them?

Mr. BORSUK: I think there's a lot of well-intended people who really don't know very much about how to put on school who have been given the power to do it, and why parents send their kids to schools like that, usually it's word of mouth that we refer to somewhat flippantly as the cousin factor. My cou--we heard it a lot from people, `My cousin went there. My cousin worked there.' Frankly, a lot of these kids, I think, are from dysfunctional families with weak educational backgrounds and the parents were just glad to have, you know--they got free busing and some other services. At one school that we found quite questionable, they were giving everyone free memberships to the YMCA. I think the parents probably thought that was kind of cool.

MONTAGNE: Why, though, is there no regulation? I mean, in this day and age of very limited budgets, why no regulation?

Mr. BORSUK: Two reasons, I think. One is that it's a separation of church and state issue. You could argue that 70 percent of the students in the program are attending religious schools. It keeps the state from an entanglement with religion. And the second is that philosophically the notion was by giving the parents the power to choose schools, low-income parents, by giving them that power, it would drive excellence. That has played out in some way, that there has been a surge of creativity. We should emphasize there were some really good schools and interesting schools that have opened here and some strong schools that have been kept alive by the vouchers but that overall the power of parent choice hasn't played out the way the advocates wanted largely because so many parents are choosing schools that are almost indisputably really weak.

MONTAGNE: Alan Borsuk is a reporter at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who spent four months visiting the city's schools.

Thanks very much.

Mr. BORSUK: Glad to be here.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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