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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, April 02, 2009

If Rose Fernandez were running a voucher school, she'd be kicked out of the program

by folkbum

The news this morning includes word that one of the more high-profile schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program, LaBrew Troopers, has been cut off by the state:
LaBrew suspended operations abruptly March 9 because of a dispute with state regulators over money. At least 51 of its 200-plus students have enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools since then. What others are doing is unknown. [. . .]

LaBrew was scheduled to receive $377,259.70 from the state in February, one of its four payments in this school year. But Michael Thompson, interim deputy state superintendent of public instruction, issued an order Feb. 23 to hold back the money because the school owed the state $315,684 to refund past overpayments and to settle other disputes. [. . .] State regulation allows almost no oversight over the programs in the private schools, short of the health or safety of students being threatened. LaBrew is not required to release any information on test scores or other data about student performance, and it has not done so.

But the state does require schools to meet a list of requirements for business practices, such as filing financial reports. It's on the financial side that there is a dispute.
For the entire life of the voucher program, up until January 1 of next year when an additional piece of piece of paper (accreditation) kicks in, the only recourse the state Department of Public Instruction has had to address problems in voucher schools has been through, basically, accounting. Teachers not qualified? No problem. No books, no computers, no playground? No problem. No paperwork? Problem. This has been nearly the only protection taxpayers have had against abuse of the system.

I can see some of the logic there; if a school is so disorganized that it cannot manage to file a handful of reports to the state, then there are probably larger problems with the way the school is being run. Still, it is not, in my opinion, where we ought to be drawing a line.

Cory Liebmann had different news yesterday:
We already know that Rose Fernandez did not leave the Wisconsin Coalition for Virtual School Families in the most organized fashion. Apparently when she was leading the organization, she never set a system in place to comply with important IRS disclosure rules. In a previous blog posting, I detailed the odyssey that I was forced to go through just to obtain the organization's IRS form 990's. These documents are supposed to be readily available upon request and it was very clear that she had never established a process by which her organization could adequately respond to a request for disclosure. This lack of organization led to a formal complaint, because these disclosure rules are important and complying with them should have been very easy.

While I was trying to locate the missing 990 forms, the registered agent for the organization suggested that communication with its leaders has always been a challenge. I assume that this includes the time that Rose Fernandez used to lead the organization since she only recently stepped down. Since one of the primary responsibilities of a registered agent is to keep the organization's documentation updated, I decided to check the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions records for the Fernandez-run organization. A quick glimpse at the information offered on the DFI site seemed to confirm a disorganized theme. The record shows that the virtual schools organization first registered with DFI in 2005 and promptly is marked as "delinquent" as soon as 2007. That "delinquent" status appears to have continued all the way until earlier this year. The only thing that DFI needed the Fernandez-led organization to do is simply provide an annual report and pay a fee. Apparently that was too hard to manage.
That's right; Rose Fernandez, who wants to expand the voucher program state-wide, failed to meet the kind of requirement that DPI, the organization she wants to lead, has had the authority to use to protect taxpayers. If the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families were a voucher school, DPI could have shut them down for non-compliance.

On a related note, Aaron Rodriguez at The Hispanic Conservative is attacking Tony Evers--the good guy in the DPI race--again, using cherry-picked data from one of Wisconsin's 400+ school districts to suggest that electing Evers would be disastrous for the whole state. He writes that Evers "must logically share in some the blame" for the failures of the Milwaukee Public Schools. He does not offer Evers any credit for things like the 280% increase in 8th-grade MPS math scores since Evers took the job as Deputy State Superintendent, or an 16% increase in MPS's graduation rate in that same time--credit which Evers must "logically share in" as well. No, just blame for the same problems in MPS that you see in every single other poor urban school district in the country.

If Rodriguez is willing to blame Evers for failures in MPS, of which Evers was not actually in charge, I wonder how willing he is to blame Rose Fernandez for her own failures to manage the organization of which she was indeed in charge?


(Aside: Two of the many things Rodriguez harps on about MPS are our expulsion rate and our truancy rate, two things over which MPS has little control. The vast majority of students MPS expels, for example, are expelled because they brought either weapons or drugs to school. We do our best to keep problems from outside the schools on the outside, but I am not sure what Rodriguez thinks we should do with students who can't manage that. I for one am not willing to compromise the safety of the other 99.6% of students to make our numbers look better.)

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