Civil rights groups say religious schools are subverting Milwaukee voucher law

Wednesday, February 3, 1999

A group of religious schools in Milwaukee is violating a state law that bars admission of voucher students on religious grounds, two national civil rights organizations have charged.

In a 13-page complaint filed with the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Washington, D.C.-based People for the American Way Foundation and the Milwaukee NAACP asked the state education department to withhold voucher funds from at least 17 schools. According to both groups, which have challenged the Milwaukee voucher program from its inception, the private schools are admitting voucher students on religious and academic grounds.

Last June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in Jackson v. Benson that Milwaukee's voucher program did not run afoul of the First Amendment's establishment clause or the state constitution. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program provides a certain number of students with vouchers to attend private schools, including religious ones. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal to reconsider the Benson decision.

Wisconsin's high court concluded that the voucher program was constitutional because the Legislature enacted it for secular reasons and because it would not advance nor inhibit religion nor create an “excessive entanglement between government and religion.”

Nonetheless, a part of the Milwaukee voucher law requires the private and religious schools participating in the program to admit voucher students on a random basis. The law, moreover, charges the Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction with ensuring that private schools comply with that regulation.

People for the American Way, a nonprofit civil rights group, yesterday filed a complaint with the Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, arguing that 35 of the 88 private and religious schools in the Milwaukee voucher program are violating the selection process and should be denied further state funds until an investigation is completed.

“Voucher schools have a moral and legal obligation to comply with the law, which means truly random selection of voucher students,” Elliot Mincberg, legal director and executive vice president of People for the American Way, said. “The voucher program was sold to Wisconsin legislators and indeed defended before the Wisconsin Supreme Court with the promise that all voucher students would get an equal chance to participate through random selection, not selection based on religious belief or other factors.”

As examples, Mincberg referred to two Milwaukee religious schools' admission plans. Saint Alexander School's selection plan states: “New students to Saint Alexander's will be accepted in the following order: siblings, Catholic students from Saint Alexander's Parish, Catholic students from other parishes, and then non-Catholic students.” Blessed Sacrament School's plan states that “parishioners are not subject to the random selection process.”

Mincberg calls on the government agency to withhold all voucher funds from the religious schools that appear to be subverting the voucher law. “We regret that the [department of public instruction] will need to spend further time and effort in order to address these serious problems,” the group's complaint states. “These problems in fact underscore our belief that the Milwaukee voucher program is a mistake.” Despite the efforts of the state education department to ensure compliance with the voucher law, it is evident that several of the schools are ignoring the law's strictures, Mincberg said.

Calls made to John Benson, superintendent of public instruction, were not returned.