Milwaukee Public Schools building
The Milwaukee Public Schools administration building is shown. (Photo via Milwaukee Public Schools/Facebook)

Critics label the effort to break up public schools “an attack on the foundation of our democracy: public schools.” 

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature are proposing breaking up Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) during the next two years and increasing educational opportunities for charter and choice schools, a move public education advocates say would cause significant damage to public schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere across the state. 

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, circulated an email to Republican lawmakers Friday outlining a package of bills that included the fracturing of MPS. The move is part of a bill package that proposes sweeping changes to the state’s K-12 education system that would include expanding private school vouchers to all parents by removing income restrictions. 

According to Wisconsin Public Radio, the bills would dissolve MPS by July 1, 2024, and replace the system with  four to eight smaller districts drawn by a commission appointed by the governor, Milwaukee mayor, and state superintendent. MPS, the state’s largest district, serves 71,000 students—90% of whom are students of color and 87% of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to state data.

“It’s one more attempt to get rid of Milwaukee Public Schools and get rid of the democratically elected school board,” Milwaukee School Board President Bob Peterson told WPR. “It’s an attack on the very foundation of our democracy: public schools.”

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The bills will be co-sponsored by Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), and Reps. Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger), Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), and Bob Wittke (R-Racine). Republicans have said too many schools in Milwaukee and some other locations have failed students, and parents should have more options on where to send their children. 

Public school backers said students at many MPS schools perform well academically, and those where too many students are struggling should be given more resources, not fewer. Wisconsin public schools receive per-pupil state aid payments, and enrollment losses to private schools mean fewer dollars for public ones

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, is likely to veto the proposal if it passes the Legislature. The governor has supported using the state’s $3.8 billion budget surplus to send money back to Wisconsinites and invest in education to bolster school districts like MPS. Republicans have said that idea is a nonstarter.

Wisconsin public education advocates criticized the proposal as yet another attack against public schools. The bills would switch financial resources from public to private schools at a time when public education is already underfunded, especially in the face of costs related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they said. 

Calling the plan “a financial nightmare” for public schools, Wisconsin Public Education Network Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane said it is particularly disingenuous given the state’s budget surplus. The Legislature’s near flat-lining of education spending as part of the 2021-23 state budget and its repeated failure to address such educational needs as a teacher shortage and students’ mental health needs is “fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible,” she said.   

“This proposal is radically extreme,” she said. “It completely lays bare the full scope of [Republicans’] priority to dismantle and disregard our public schools.”

Other public school backers expressed similar sentiments. Jill Underly, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, said she welcomes input from the Republican-led Legislature regarding Wisconsin’s schools, but the proposed bills would harm public education.  

“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,” Underly said in a statement.