MPS breakup: Republicans propose splitting school district

Republican state legislators propose breaking up Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), and expanding school voucher eligibility to all students.

MPS, which has roughly 70,000 students, is Wisconsin's largest school district. The Republican plan would break up MPS into 4 to 8 smaller districts.

"The performance of Milwaukee Public Schools impacts the entire state, so it’s a workforce issue, it’s an economic issue," said CJ Szafir with the Institute for Reforming Government. "For far too long, we sent billions of dollars into a system that just doesn’t work. We have to have a discussion about whether Milwaukee Public Schools and the school board is simply too big to ever succeed."

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Effective July 1, 2024, this bill would dissolve MPS. Each of the four to eight new school districts would need to be kindergarten through 12th grade, with a seven-person school board elected at large for three-year terms. 

The bill would set up the Milwaukee Public Schools Redistricting and Implementation Commission to make the decision about how many districts to have and where the boundaries should fall. The members of the group would be the governor; two members appointed by the governor; the state superintendent; the mayor of Milwaukee; and two members appointed by the mayor.

MPS Board President Bob Peterson gives the proposal a failing grade.

"I think it’s a recipe for chaos. I think it’s going to be a disaster for the families and students of our MPS," Peterson said. "Right now, families are accustomed to choosing any school within the city limits. We have a variety of schools, we have the largest footprint of Montessori schools in the nation."

Peterson said having a large school district allows MPS to better manage logistics.

"There’s an economy of scale here. We successfully feed, transport, give social services to tens of thousands of kids," said Peterson. "We’re going to break this down into smaller groups? We’re going to have four different departments or eight different departments dealing with food services. Eight different departments trying to coordinate transportation. It’s insane."

Szafir backs the proposal, saying: "Taking Milwaukee Public Schools and splitting it into smaller districts will increase accountability and also bring a closer relationship between parents, teachers and the administration."

School voucher plan

The Republican plan would also allow any student in Wisconsin to qualify for a school voucher, which can be used to send kids to private schools.

Currently, there are income limits. Right now, a Milwaukee married couple with two kids can make up to $86,000 and remain eligible for the voucher. The same-sized family could make up to $65,000 and remain eligible elsewhere in the state.

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

In a letter to lawmakers asking them to join as co-sponsors, State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) explained the impetus for the package of bills: "Increased scrutiny and parental involvement in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need for fundamental educational reforms while presenting a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a course correction."

"That will mean the destruction of the public schools," said Peterson. "Basically what you are doing is giving people individual choice for a very narrow type of religious education and in the meantime, cutting, destroying the huge collective choice that most people still make which is to go to the public school."

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"When parents are in charge, when you put parents and families first, they should be able to chose whatever school they want," said Szafir with the Institute for Reforming Government. "Some will choose the traditional public school and some will choose a private school or even public charter school. But under this package, parents and families are first and the bureaucracy is last."

A recent poll commissioned by the City Forward Collective found 29% of parents rate the MPS school board as "good" or "excellent," leaving many unsatisfied. The MPS board president said if people aren't satisfied, they should elect new leaders. He says that's democracy.

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