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Public Dollars and Private Schools: A Bad Mix
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Tenasha Taylor, an African-American student at an elite private high school, learned the hard way that private schools get to operate by different rules than public schools.

 

Taylor gave a speech on Black separatism in her English class at University School of Milwaukee. She also criticized the school as racist. Suspended and asked not to return to the school the following fall, Taylor sued on grounds of free speech. She lost.

In his opinion, Federal Judge Terrence Evans wrote, "It is an elementary principle of constitutional law that the protections afforded by the Bill of Rights do not apply to private actors such as the University School. Generally, restrictions on constitutional rights that would be protected at a public high school ... need not be honored at a private high school."

Taylor's 1995 case has taken on new implications following the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision this summer upholding the constitutionality of Milwaukee's program that provides vouchers to private and religious schools.

It's not mere coincidence that the term "private" is so often followed by the phrase, "Keep Out!" Private schools, like private roads and private country clubs, don't have to answer to the public. That's why they are called "private."

What does it mean when private schools get public dollars yet don't have to follow the same rules as public schools? The answer is particularly crucial in Milwaukee because 100% of a private school's students can be funded by vouchers -- in other words, the school doesn't have to have a single student who privately pays tuition -- and the school still gets to call itself "private" and operate accordingly.

Under Milwaukee's program, voucher schools:

  • Do not have to obey the state's open meetings and records laws.
  • Do not have to hire certified teachers -- or even require a college degree.
  • Do not have to release information on employee wages or benefits.
  • Do not have to administer the statewide tests required of public schools.
  • Do not have to publicly release data such as test scores, attendance figures, or suspension and drop-out rates.
The only requirement is that a "financial and performance evaluation audit" of the entire voucher program be submitted to the legislature in 2000.

 

One of the fiercest controversies has erupted over special education students, who account for about 15% of Milwaukee public school students. The voucher schools argue that even when such students are enrolled in a private school (which the schools help ensure doesn't happen too often), it is up to the public schools to provide any special services such students may need.

There's also the issue that some white parents in Milwaukee have used private schools to get around desegregation. The Milwaukee public schools, for instance, are approximately 60% African American. At some of the most popular Catholic high schools, only 3% to 5% of the students are African American.

At this point, it will be almost impossible to determine if vouchers are exacerbating problems of segregation because voucher schools are not being required to report the race of students participating in the program.

The voucher schools also balked at a letter from Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction this summer asking that the schools comply with federal and state protections on issues such as free speech, due process, and non-discrimination based on gender, marital status, pregnancy, and sexual orientation. (The only legislative requirement is that they not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The schools are also to accept voucher students on a random basis.)

The legal issues are particularly complicated because religious schools can receive vouchers. Under the First Amendment, the government is not to "entangle" itself in the running of religious institutions. Thus religious schools can legally fire teachers who violate the schools' views on religious principles -- such as a gay teacher or a teacher who supports the right to abortion. Will religious schools that receive vouchers also be able to teach that homosexuality is a sin, that creationism is superior to the theory of evolution, or that the Jews killed Christ?

As with many issues in the Milwaukee voucher program, the controversy is sure to land in the courts.