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Vouchers and Public Accountability

By Erik Gunn

Milwaukee's low-income voucher program, the oldest in the nation, began in 1991, enabled by legislation drafted by State Rep. Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat. Under the program, low-income residents of the Milwaukee school district may attend private schools at taxpayer expense. This year, roughly 8,000 students and 100 private schools, most of them religious, are taking part in the voucher program. Cleveland has a similar voucher program, while this fall Florida began a statewide voucher initiative.

Initially, Milwaukee's voucher program was limited to non-sectarian schools, and courts ruled that the experimental program did not violate the state's constitution. Religious schools were to be added in the 1995-96 school year, but their inclusion was initially blocked by lower courts, which ruled that the change benefited religious institutions in violation of the US and the Wisconsin constitutions. The state Supreme Court overturned those rulings in June 1998, concluding that since vouchers weren't limited to sectarian schools, they didn't constitute unconstitutional aid to religious institutions. The court essentially concluded that the vouchers were a benefit conferred on individual parents, who were free to choose to use them in participating sectarian or non-sectarian schools.

From the beginning, regulation of the voucher schools has been minimal. To continue participating in the voucher program, private schools have to meet one of four standards: