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Tuesday, April 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scandals rock Milwaukee's school-voucher program

The Associated Press

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 kids 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 aren't required to report much about their methods to the state, or to track their students' performance. Proponents say that frees the schools from 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 showed 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, had 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 telephone number Seppeh listed on his application to the state has been disconnected, and The Associated Press could not locate another listing for him. Seppeh has said that he does not believe he was stealing because he and his wife invested thousands in the school.

As for academics at Mandella, Sinicki said no one has any idea how the students were doing.

"That's the problem. We don't know. They don't have to tell us anything like that," she said. "I highly doubt they were doing that well, since they were playing Monopoly and watching movies."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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