Failed alternative school reignites voucher debate

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Exito Education Academy first tried to be an alternative school. Then it tried to be a voucher school. Finally, it ended up as a lesson on the potential dangers of both.

In 1994, Exito lost its alternative-schools contract with the Milwaukee Board of Education because of numerous contract violations, including the falsifying of attendance data and teacher certification documents.

Despite that, the state accepted Exito for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows students to attend private non-sectarian schools at the state’s expense. However, the school’s reincarnation was short lived. In early February, the school closed amid allegations of questionable finances and exaggerated enrollment numbers, leaving more than 100 students scrambling to find spaces elsewhere, including public schools.

Exito Director Adrian Hipp faces criminal charges of writing $47,000 in worthless checks. Although Hipp has denied any connection between the charges and the school’s operation, a criminal complaint says that the checks were deposited in the school’s account.

Exito is one of two choice schools that have closed in the last two months. Milwaukee Preparatory Academy had opened in September with promises of a rigorous curriculum tailor-made for African-American youth. However, the school’s director abruptly left town a couple of months ago, just as the school’s enrollment numbers were being questioned by the state’s Department of Public Instruction.

The district attorney’s office is investigating enrollment numbers at both Exito and Milwaukee Prep, which had generated a total of $600,000 in state funds for the schools. An audit by the state Department of Public Instruction found that the schools owed the state nearly $400,000 because of the inflated enrollment numbers.

The closings reignited the voucher debate in Milwaukee, the country’s only city to have such a program. While the program is limited to non-sectarian schools, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is deliberating the constitutionality of expanding the program to religious schools. With several states considering voucher legislation, the case has received nationwide attention. Oral arguments were scheduled for Feb. 27.

In the wake of the closings, critics of vouchers have called for stricter monitoring and regulation of choice schools, which are exempt from most state education rules and regulations.

“Anybody could have seen this coming,” Alex Molnar, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee education professor told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This is what happens when you make education policy based on ideological zealotry instead of the best interest of the children.”

However, former Milwaukee Schools Supt. Howard Fuller, now an education professor at Marquette University, told the paper: “The risks are necessary if we are going to develop something new and different.”