Republican lawmakers plan legislation to break up MPS, expand vouchers to all students in a proposal to overhaul K-12 education

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MADISON – Republican lawmakers plan to propose a sweeping package of legislation to overhaul K-12 education in Wisconsin that would break up the state's largest school district within two years and expand private-school vouchers to every student, regardless of family income.

The proposal is part of a package that expands taxpayer-funded alternatives to public schools, including increasing the number of charter schools and giving parents money to pay for additional learning opportunities outside of the normal school day, including college courses.

"These bills are in response to a number of issues parents and children are seeing as COVID-19 and failed school leadership are eliminating educational opportunities in our schools," Senate Education Committee chairwoman Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said in an email to colleagues on Friday with summaries of each bill.

"Our package of bills promotes school performance transparency and accountability, as well as re-asserts parental choice and rights."

A spokesman for Darling did not respond to a request for an interview. A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a former state superintendent, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Milwaukee Public Schools would be dissolved by July 1, 2024, and replaced with four to eight smaller districts in the city, under a bill planned for proposal by Darling, Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine.

The new plan for Milwaukee public school students would be created by a commission consisting of the governor and the mayor of Milwaukee, both of whom would make two appointments each to the commission, and the state superintendent of public instruction, according to Darling's summary of the expected legislation.

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The commission must determine the number of new school districts and their boundaries, and submit recommendations for statutory changes to the state Legislature, no later than Oct. 1.

MPS president calls Republicans' plan 'a losing proposition'

Milwaukee School Board President Bob Peterson said the proposal would be a disastrous disruption for families who depend on MPS for education, meals and other support.

MPS School Board President Bob Peterson
MPS School Board President Bob Peterson

“It’s reminiscent of the previous failed attempts to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools and it’s destined to be a losing proposition,” Peterson said.

Peterson said a district that covers the full city allows for maximal flexibility for families to choose the type of school that best suits their children, even if it’s miles away, including Montessori schools, language immersion schools and other specialized schools.

“Implementing this plan would restrict heavily the choices that current families and students have as they choose schools they wish to go to,” Peterson said.

MPS administrators did not immediately reply to requests for comment from the Journal Sentinel.

State Superintendent Jill Underly, who oversees the state Department of Public Instruction, said the proposals were seeking to be divisive instead of addressing real needs.

"I welcome the legislature’s assistance in helping our schools reach our children and their complex needs, encourage authentic parental engagement, and stem the growing teacher shortage," Underly said in a statement.

"However, these proposals are a polarizing and disingenuous distraction from the real needs of students, families, and educators, and they do nothing to help our schools, which have suffered greatly during this pandemic. They do nothing to help public schools and instead will cause great harm.”

C.J. Szafir, director of the Institute for Reforming Government Action Fund, which lobbies lawmakers on legislation to expand private school vouchers and charter schools, said the bills would improve student achievement.

“Taxpayers spend billions every year on a public school system that gives more power to bureaucrats than to parents," said Szafir, who also is a board member for HOPE schools, a system of schools in the state's private school voucher program.

"By expanding school choice options, holding school districts accountable for unnecessarily closing schools over the pandemic, and finally breaking up the failed Milwaukee Public School district, these lawmakers are putting children and parents ahead of bureaucracy."

Adding charter schools in Wisconsin

Another measure in the package would require contracts with existing independent charter school authorizers to allow charter school governing boards to open additional schools if all charter schools operated by that board are in one of the top two performance categories in the state school accountability system.

A new statewide commission to authorize new independent charter schools would be created under another proposal. The commission would include the state superintendent, two appointees of the state superintendent who have served on the governing board of a charter school, two appointees each of the governor, Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, and one appointee each of the minority leaders of both legislative houses. None of the appointees can be lawmakers.

Another bill would require the state school report cards be designed in a way that student growth may not be valued more than overall achievement when determining a school's overall score.

"This will ensure legislative input going forward and allow for the opportunity to develop a report card to more accurately show the current state of Education in Wisconsin," Darling said in the email to colleagues.

How parents could sue school officials under the 'Parental Bill of Rights'

The lawmakers are also proposing to create a "Parental Bill of Rights" that would allow parents to sue school officials if one of the rights were violated.

Under the legislation, those rights would be:

  • "The right to determine the religion of the child."

  • "The right to determine the type of school or educational setting the child attends."

  • "The right to determine medical care for the child, unless specified otherwise in law or court order."

  • "The right to review instructional materials and outlines used by the child's school."

  • "The right to request notice of when certain subjects will be taught or discussed in the child's classroom."

  • "The right to opt out of a class or instructional materials for reasons based on either religion or personal conviction."

  • "The right to visit the child at school during school hours, consistent with school policy, unless otherwise specified in law or court order."

  • "The right to engage with locally elected school board members of the school district in which the child is a student, including participating at regularly scheduled school board meetings."

Residents who live in school districts that did not hold in-person instruction for more than 10 days during the second half of the 2021-22 school year, which includes Milwaukee Public Schools, would receive a larger school property tax credit under another proposal.

The claimants adjusted gross income must be below $80,000 for a single resident and below $150,000 for a married couple to qualify.

Wisconsin lawmakers have previously tried to break up MPS

MPS break-ups have been proposed before.

In 2009, Republican former state lawmakers Ted Kanavas and Leah Vukmir proposed dissolving MPS and replacing it with eight smaller districts.

The same year, Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle and Mayor Tom Barrett suggested taking away the school board’s power to appoint the superintendent and giving that power to the mayor. Neither moved forward.

In 2015, state lawmakers created an “Opportunity Schools” program that threatened to separate up to five struggling schools away from MPS if the district got a failing score on the state’s accountability reports.

Since then, MPS has avoided failing, though Darling’s proposal to change the accountability reports — by emphasizing performance over growth — could be harder on MPS. The program is still in place.

Going back farther, nearly 50 years ago Democratic state Rep. Dennis Conta proposed new metropolitan school districts that would have combined Milwaukee’s city and suburban schools as an economic and racial integration measure.

Peterson, the MPS board president, said Conta’s proposal came to mind when he saw Darling’s idea. But while Conta’s plan had the aim of addressing disparities, Peterson said Darling’s would do nothing to address the most significant problems facing MPS families.

“Our students and families face the lack of family sustaining jobs, affordable housing, and adequate health care,” Peterson said. “If the senator really wants to help out Milwaukee, perhaps she should also look at those issues.”

Rory Linnane of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

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Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Republican lawmakers plan legislation to break up MPS, expand vouchers

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