While Governor Tony Evers’ proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s parental school choice programs received significant media attention, other proposals, like changes to private school accreditation, have received little, if any, attention. This is dangerous because his proposed changes to private school accreditation would be just as harmful as a freeze on the choice programs, and it will ultimately prevent new private schools from participating in the programs. It’s a solution without any major problem and imposes more requirements on private schools than on public schools.
Since 2006, private schools wanting to participate in a parental choice program have been legally required to go through an accreditation process, and ultimately receive accreditation from one of the 9 state-approved entities. The accreditation process is an extensive one that includes three steps: (1) pre-accreditation, (2) candidacy for accreditation, and (3) accreditation. These steps allow the accrediting entity time to determine whether the school meets the standards set by the entity and do an analysis of the school’s operations, finances and academic model.
State law requires that private schools must at least be pre-accredited to participate in the choice programs. This allows the school the ability to educate students in the choice programs while simultaneously going through accreditation process.
The existing law is arguably a good policy. Studies have shown that students in private schools in the parental choice program are outperforming their public school peers in academics, safety, and character. A study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and School Choice Wisconsin found that schools that opened more recently in the school choice program were less likely to close than older schools, suggestive evidence that existing regulations were working to eliminate some “fly-by-night” schools.
Despite evidence proving the success of choice schools, Evers is proposing that private schools must complete all the steps of accreditation prior to participating in the choice programs. This change creates a catch 22 for new schools – the school could not accept students on a voucher until they completed the entire accreditation process but they cannot complete accreditation without students in the building.
Particularly in Milwaukee, this regulation would effectively end the ability for new schools to join the program. Schools like St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, which opened last school year in Milwaukee with a mission to serve economically disadvantaged students on the voucher, has nearly 100 percent of students using a voucher according to the Department of Public Instruction’s report cards. This school, which served nearly 600 students last year and will grow to about 1,300 next year, had proficiency rates well above the average Milwaukee Public School but would not even exist under Evers’ proposal.
This change in accreditation also makes it more difficult for existing private schools to join the parental choice program because it is one more regulation that the school must comply with. The plan is even more ridiculous when one considers that Wisconsin’s public schools aren’t required to go through any accreditation process at all.
While some states such as Indiana and Michigan require schools to be accredited, Wisconsin has no such provision in law. If the governor believes that further onerous accreditation requirements are needed on some of Wisconsin’s best performing schools, surely one would expect that he wants the same regulations on the public schools that he oversaw for a decade.
But that is not the case because this is not about school quality. Rather, this is little more than yet another attempt to cut off the pipeline of high performing private voucher schools that provide too much competition to his teachers’ union donors.
Evers knows exactly what he is doing with his accreditation proposal. He is looking to create more red tape for private schools and add to the number of requirements that already make the Wisconsin choice program one of the most regulated in the country. This proposal is well designed attack on the school choice programs and it must not stand.
Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.