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Scandal Rocks Milwaukee's School-Voucher Program

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 children 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 appeared 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 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.

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 upward 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 up.

— The Associated Press
Richmond Times-Dispatch




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