May 2009 Church & State | People & Events

A Milwaukee private school that has received $4.5 million in taxpayer funds through the state’s voucher program closed abruptly recently amid parents’ allegations that students had been mistreated.

Several parents charged that staff at the LaBrew Troopers Military University School punished students in inappropriate ways. For example, some pupils were forced to carry their desks over their heads. One student who wasn’t feeling well fell asleep in class and had a pitcher of water poured over his head.

Several students, including one who is just 6 years old, said that if they broke the school’s rules, they were punished by having their arms twisted behind their backs until they said, “I give.”

A 9-year-old girl said she was punished by being forced to carry around a bag of sand. Others reported that they were made to do push-ups on milk crates until their arms throbbed.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that the school suspended operations in March after a dispute over state aid. Shortly after that, parents began coming forth with stories about mistreatment.

Parent Tabitha Watkins enrolled her three children in the school, believing the emphasis on discipline would be good for them. She soon came to regret it.

“It’s been nothing but misery,” Watkins told the newspaper.

Other parents complained that the school’s academic program was weak. State officials were not aware of the school’s educational quality because there is no requirement that voucher-subsidized schools account for student performance.

 “State regulation allows almost no oversight over the programs in the private schools, short of the health or safety of students being threatened,” reported the Journal Sentinel. “LaBrew is not required to release any information on test scores or other data about student performance, and it has not done so.”

Milwaukee’s voucher program has been in place since 1990. Originally limited to non-sectarian private schools, it was later modified to permit religious institutions to take part.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998 upheld the scheme, despite language in the state constitution barring public funds going “for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.”

LaBrew, which operated in a former industrial building that has nearly no windows, has been taking part in the voucher program since 2003. School officials told the newspaper they had done nothing wrong and vowed to re-open the facility.

State officials and legislators are now talking about imposing some regulations on schools participating in the program.

The Milwaukee program suffered another blow recently when a battery of studies of the plan by University of Arkansas researchers found that voucher students are doing no better academically than their peers in public schools.