By Steve Gunn

MILWAUKEE – In some states public schools and their apologists have been forced to co-exist with private schools that are largely supported with state vouchers.

nosoupforyouThey go through the motions of co-existence, but their animosity toward private voucher schools is sickeningly obvious at times.

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The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s anti-voucher leanings are on full display at the moment.

DPI is currently withholding a total of $1.3 million in voucher payments to five Milwaukee private schools –  Christian Faith Academy, Emmaus Lutheran, Dr. Brenda Noach Choice School, Washington DuBois Christian Leadership Academy and Young Minds Preparatory School.

The five schools receive money from the state to pay tuition for students who chose to leave nearby public schools.

DPI is apparently withholding the money out of concern over the financial stability of the schools, according to the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal. State officials want to be sure that the schools won’t close in mid-semester, leaving students who paid tuition with state money out in the cold.

State officials want the private school administrators to improve their accounting practices and prove they’re maintaining acceptable financial reserves, according to the news report. The schools are also expected to file timely financial reports and provide DPI with “surety bonds” that would protect the state against financial losses in case any of the schools fold.

If they can’t provide the surety bonds, they are expected to have special financial audits to demonstrate their viability.

Ironically, the decision to withhold the money is contributing to the schools’ financial instability.

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The schools have limited funds to maintain operations while they wait for their state payments, which are significantly lower than what the state sends to public schools, according to the news report.

Most of these schools have few or no private-pay students and exist almost entirely on state voucher money. That means some will struggle to come up with enough money to remain open if the state continues to withhold funding, according to the newspaper.

“Any time you withhold this amount of money, it’s tough for us,” Corey Foster, dean of students at Emmaus Lutheran, told the Sentinel Journal. “We’re weathering the storm.”

So the state is upset that the schools are short of cash, but it exacerbates the problem by withholding money. What exactly is DPI trying to accomplish here?

DPI plays an ‘adversarial role’

Kirsten Hildebrand, an attorney for Christian Faith Academy and Young Minds, said those two schools have both completed special financial audits demonstrating their stability.

“Christian Faith Academy is financially capable and has proven that to DPI by following the administrative regulations and obtaining an audit from an outside third party that says there is no concern about this school continuing.

“Whatever questions DPI might have had have been completely allayed by this audit and therefore DPI should be under an obligation to release the funds so that (the schools) can pay their vendors and their teachers.”

Hildebrand went on to suggest that the state “often appears to play an adversarial role with the voucher schools, instead of helping them work out solutions.” She also thinks the DPI “is targeting schools it does not wish to see continue.”

She may have a point.

After all, Milwaukee Public Schools have been a financial and academic mess for years, but we’ve never heard of DPI withholding money from that district.

Officials at DPI seem to forget that they’re dealing with private schools that are not owned or operated by the state. Therefore the schools should have limited responsibility to explain or justify their operations to the state.

It’s reasonable for DPI officials to require some evidence that the schools will survive the current school year and not waste tax money, but beyond that they seem to be overreaching. And withholding money from schools with money problems is certainly not the answer.

We might feel differently if any of the allegations against the five schools were academic in nature. But they are not, indicating that students are probably doing quite well.  That means the schools are probably accomplishing their mission – to provide quality education options for students who were stuck in sub-standard Milwaukee public schools and wanted something better.

As long as academics are not the problem, DPI officials should lighten up and do what they can to help these upstart schools make ends meet, instead of trying to starve them out of existence.