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Catholic Education

Sooner or later, voucher programs will face scrutiny


Perhaps it’s my journalistic training, but when someone refuses to give me what should be publicly available information, I get suspicious.

Maureen Gallagher, director of Catholic Education for the Milwaukee archdiocese, has consistently refused to release information to my newspaper, Rethinking Schools, on the racial breakdown and test scores at Catholic schools participating in a Milwaukee program under which low-income children can use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools.

My immediate reaction has always been what is she trying to hide?

Vouchers are one of the hottest initiatives in education, and voucher bills are expected in more than 20 states this spring. Currently, Cleveland has a program similar to Milwaukee’s, and this fall Florida began the first statewide voucher program. Because Milwaukee’s program was the first, however, it remains a critically important test case for the national vouchers debate (see “Milwaukee’s experiment,” NCR, March 26, 1999).

The following is a cautionary tale for any religious school thinking about entering the murky waters of public vouchers for private schools.

Constitutional issues aside, such a relationship inherently opens up questions of public accountability. If religious schools want taxpayers’ dollars, they will have to realize that public dollars rarely come without strings attached. One of the biggest strings is that the public has a right not only to know how its tax dollars are being spent but also to impose restrictions on such spending.

My ongoing correspondence with the Milwaukee archdiocese started in the spring of 1999, when a researcher for Rethinking Schools asked for information on the racial breakdown at Catholic voucher schools, including the racial breakdown of the voucher students. The issue is of more than passing interest, given the centrality of race to education politics in this city and the not-too-well-disguised fact that, in some cases, Catholic schools have been used by white parents to avoid desegregation efforts in the public schools.

Gallagher complained of not having enough time. When I told her that we had the time and would compile the data from her records, she was blunt: “Are you kidding?” she told me. “We don’t open our files to anybody.”

Last May, I heard through a well-placed source that the archdiocese was worried because test scores at some of the voucher schools were extremely low. In some cases, so the rumor went, the kids were doing worse than their counterparts in the Milwaukee public schools.

Is this true? I don’t know. But I wanted to find out. So I sent another letter to Gallagher, asking for the test scores at archdiocesan voucher schools, particularly those 16 schools where more than half the students received vouchers.

This time Gallagher was equally blunt, although more formal. She wrote that the archdiocese “cannot provide you with the additional information you requested.” The Catholic schools, she wrote, are accountable to the parents, to the church, and, as far the voucher funds go, to the Department of Public Instruction.

In other words, the general public has no right to know how well voucher kids are performing in the Catholic schools, even though the public is paying their tuition.

Back in the days when private schools relied exclusively on private tuition and donations, such arguments were valid. But when public dollars are involved, and when the entire voucher program is premised on the assumption that private schools are providing a superior education for low-income children, the rules of the game have to be different. (This year, there are roughly 8,100 students and 91 private schools, most of them religious, taking part in Milwaukee’s publicly funded voucher program.)

I find Gallagher’s recalcitrance particularly curious given that in 1991, the one time the archdiocese released even partially broken down test scores, the findings showed that the gap in performance between white students and African-American and Latino students in archdiocesan schools mirrored that of the public schools.

This is not just a Catholic issue. Rethinking Schools sent similar letters to all the voucher schools. As a group, however, the Catholic schools stood out by their refusal to release information. Eight of the 10 Lutheran schools, for example, responded at least in part. Yet the Catholic schools account for almost half of those receiving vouchers and have a centralized bureaucracy that should be capable of providing basic data.

A recent report by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau provided figures on the racial breakdown of students receiving vouchers, but not the overall racial breakdown in voucher schools. Most Catholic schools also provided some racial figures to pro-voucher researchers, listing white vs. non-white percentages but failing to break down figures into categories of African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American.

There are both educational and public policy concerns here. On an educational level, if the private schools are providing a better education, then it would be important to find out why -- and how public schools could benefit from those findings.

But if low-income kids are not necessarily performing any better -- and if, as any number of national studies show, a child’s socioeconomic status is the main determinant of how well they will perform on standardized tests -- then vouchers are not going to be the magic bullet that will cure educational woes.

Interestingly, those two Catholic schools that did return information on racial breakdown heightened fears that the voucher program may exacerbate segregation. One of the schools, Blessed Sacrament on the south side, had only one African-American among its 200 students. At St. Sebastian’s, located in a clearly multiracial neighborhood on the city’s west side, there were 26 African-Americans among its 446 students, or only 6 percent. In comparison, at nearby Hi-Mount, a public neighborhood school, 76 percent of the students were African-American in 1997-98.

Right now, private schools can thumb their noses at anyone in the media or public who requests information. In fact, the 1995 legislation that expanded the voucher program to include religious schools specifically eliminated what were modest requirements that the schools report, at least to the Department of Public Instruction, information on racial breakdown and test scores. At present not even the state knows the racial breakdown or the test scores at the voucher schools.

As a result, we have a voucher program that will eat up potentially $75 million a year in public funds, and absolutely no requirements to find out how well the schools are educating kids or how they may affect racial segregation.

We live in an environment of “get tough” school policies, with increasing requirements that public schools shape up and “be accountable.” Why are the voucher schools exempted from comparable scrutiny?

More important, how long do religious schools honestly think it will be before the public starts asking similar questions and demanding that religious voucher schools be accountable not only to their congregations but to the public at large?

Barbara Miner is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a grassroots education newspaper published in Milwaukee. It is online at www.rethinkingschools.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000