Religious schools in Wisconsin violating voucher law, civil rights groups say

Wednesday, August 25, 1999

For the second time this year, two national civil rights groups have filed a complaint with a Wisconsin state department charging that several religious schools in Milwaukee are violating a state-funded voucher program.

According to research by the two civil rights groups, the schools are forbidding voucher students from opting out of religious instruction and requiring them and their parents to sign forms expressing a commitment to the schools' sectarian missions. Such actions are not supposed to occur under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was established in 1993 to provide state-funded vouchers for poor students to attend private schools.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the program last year, it did so because it found that the program was enacted for secular reasons and because the vouchers allegedly would not advance religion or entangle the government with religion.

In Jackson v. Benson, Wisconsin's high court said “the purpose of the program is to provide low-income parents with an opportunity to have their children educated outside the embattled Milwaukee public school system.” Moreover, according to the court, “a student qualifies for benefits under the amended MPCP (voucher program) not because he or she is a Catholic, a Jew, a Moslem, or an atheist; it is because he or she is from a poor family and is a student in the embattled Milwaukee Public Schools. To qualify under the amended MPCP, the student is never asked his or her religious affiliation or beliefs.”

In reality, however, voucher students are being subjected to religious tests for admissions to certain schools, two civil rights groups charge.

People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, and the Milwaukee NAACP, argue in their second complaint sent late last week to the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction that voucher students, who are supposed to be admitted to the private schools randomly, are actually undergoing admissions procedures similar to those of the school's regular students. The superintendent's office is mandated by law to make sure voucher students are admitted to private schools according to the Milwaukee voucher law.

In February, the groups filed their first complaint, warning the Department of Public Instruction that many private schools were not adjusting their admissions policies for voucher students.

In a 15-page complaint submitted on Aug. 20 to Superintendent for Public Instruction John Benson, the two groups included letters and admissions packets from several Milwaukee religious schools that were given to prospective voucher students. The materials indicated that students were not being admitted to the private schools randomly, the complaint said.

Milwaukee's Blessed Trinity Catholic School has asked parents of voucher students to sign a “Parent Commitment Statement” that includes statements such as: “I will support the religious foundations of our school and my child will participate in daily classroom prayer, daily religion classes, and prayer services,” and “I will assume the role of religious educator by sharing faith in the home.”

Potential voucher students at Saint Sebastian School are given forms to sign stating that by choosing the school they “recognize it is a Catholic School” and that they and their parents support the school's religious mission “by the active practice of our Faith.” Additionally students are asked to provide their religion, “baptism date, first Eucharist date and first Reconciliation date.” (Reconciliation is a sacrament in the Catholic Church in which a member confesses his or her sins to a priest in order to receive God's forgiveness.)

“Children who try to enter some private and religious schools as voucher students are finding the admissions process stacked against them and others are being told that they have to check their rights at the door,” Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, said yesterday in a prepared statement. “Wisconsin public officials should move immediately and firmly to correct this abuse of the public trust.”

The two groups' most recent complaint also provides evidence that voucher students are not being permitted to opt out of religious activities. The Milwaukee voucher program grants parents of voucher students the right to keep their children from participating in any religious activity at school.

Applicants at Blessed Trinity Catholic School, however, must sign a statement that the student “will participate in daily classroom prayer, daily religion classes, and prayer services.” Officials with People for the American Way say the principal at Milwaukee's Oklahoma Lutheran Church told them that if voucher students wanted to be excused from religious activities at his school they should not bother applying.

“The evidence set forth clearly warrants prompt and decisive action from [the Department of Public Instruction], including cease and desist orders to specific schools found to be violating the voucher statute,” the civil rights groups concluded in their complaint. “If the schools do not bring themselves promptly into compliance with the law, DPI should exercise its authority to withhold payment of voucher monies to those schools and prohibit the offending schools from participating in the voucher program.”

Charles Toulmin, administrator of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, said that the department has not been able to conduct internal discussions regarding the complaint and that he would meet next week with the superintendent to discuss the civil rights groups' charges.

“It will take a little while before the department can respond,” Toulmin said. “But we take any allegations that choice schools are not complying with the law seriously and we will be looking into those allegations. A critical part of the choice program is to ensure that students are being chosen randomly.”