Milwaukee school voucher program rocked by scandal

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

MILWAUKEE -- One school that received millions of dollars through the nation's oldest and largest voucher program was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained kids with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students.

The recent scandals have shocked politicians, angered parents and left even some voucher supporters demanding reforms.

The troubles have helped lead to passage of a state law requiring voucher schools to report more financial information to the state. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed it last month.

But so far, efforts to impose more rigorous academic standards on voucher schools have failed.

Milwaukee's 14-year-old voucher program has served as a model for others around the country. It doles out state money to allow poor parents to send their children to private schools. Wisconsin will spend $75 million this year on vouchers for more than 13,000 students.

The schools are required to report virtually nothing about their methods to the state, or to track their students' performance. Proponents say that frees the schools from onerous bureaucracy. But some say the lack of oversight makes them a prime target for abuse.

At the Mandella Academy for Science and Math, school officials admitted signing up more than 200 students who never showed and then cashing $330,000 in state-issued tuition checks, which the principal used to buy, among other things, Mercedes-Benzes for himself and the assistant principal.

Meanwhile, Alex's Academics of Excellence received $2.8 million in voucher money over three years before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the school's founder, James A. Mitchell, served nearly a decade in prison for a 1971 rape. Unlike their counterparts at public schools, principals and teachers at private schools do not have to undergo criminal background checks.

The state has suspended funding for Alex's because of financial problems, and a judge shut down the Mandella academy earlier this year.

"I think across the community, there was outrage about what happened at Mandella. It finally raised the issue of accountability," said state Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation requiring more stringent financial oversight.

The scandals have upset many, including the parents of the 190 students displaced by Mandella's closing.

"Some of these places they have opened up a school, it's a doggone shame. There's kids playing in alleys and the streets," said Lee Brown, who sent her daughters, ages 14 and 16, to Mandella.

Mandella's principal, David Seppeh, does not have a teacher's license and was not required to submit any information about the school's philosophy or curriculum before receiving upwards of $1 million in voucher funding.

The district attorney's office seized a Mercedes from his home. A criminal investigation is under way.

The Mandella school initially reported an enrollment of 476 students, but 235 of them did not show.

Under the voucher program, tuition checks in parents' names are sent straight from the state to the school. Parents sign a waiver authorizing the school to cash their checks, but if they later pull out, it is up to the school to notify the state and return the money.

In Mandella's case, some parents who initially considered sending their children to Mandella but changed their minds said they were not aware that they were signing a waiver or that checks in their name were sent to the school.

The telephone number Seppeh listed on his application to the state has been disconnected, and The Associated Press could not locate another listing for him. Seppeh has said that he does not believe he was stealing because he and his wife invested thousands in the school.

(It is not clear how the school came to be called Mandella, spelled with two "l's," unlike the name of South Africa's Nelson Mandela.)

As for academics at Mandella, Sinicki said no one has any idea how the students were doing.

"That's the problem. We don't know. They don't have to tell us anything like that," she said. "I highly doubt they were doing that well, since they were playing Monopoly and watching movies."

Milwaukee's leading voucher advocate, Howard Fuller, worked with legislators to develop the law to impose more stringent financial requirements on voucher schools. But he said it would be unfair to cast a shadow over all voucher schools because of one failure.

The governor has proposed requiring voucher schools to administer many of the same standardized tests as public schools.

Other voucher programs, in Cleveland, Florida, Maine and Vermont, are also subject to little regulation.

Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Washington, said the demand for greater accountability in public schools has led to a similar debate over voucher programs.

"Now people are saying, 'Geez, if the public schools have to meet this level of accountability, why shouldn't the private schools also?"' he said.

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