The Contrarian

Parents May ‘Break Up’ MPS

Majority of city students may eventually attend alternatives to traditional Milwaukee Public Schools.

By - Feb 8th, 2022 10:48 am
Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

A development in the Milwaukee education scene that once would have been unthinkable is on the verge of occurring.

Perhaps as early as next school year, a majority of Milwaukee parents could use tax-supported options to attend non-MPS traditional schools. So, while the flawed idea of top-down restructuring to break up MPS is again being proposed, a bottoms-up remaking of MPS is actually taking place.

Last school year 46% of Milwaukee parents used alternatives to MPS. This is thanks to three different pieces of legislation enacted in the 1990s. One was the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. A second was authorization for public charter schools. The third was the Open Enrollment Program that lets students transfer to a public school other than their resident district.

Here are the Milwaukee numbers for the 2020-21 school year.

Students % of Total
MPS Traditional Schools 61,157 54.0
Independent and MPS-Authorized Charters 18,221 16.1
Milwaukee Parental Choice Program 28,535 25.2
Open Enrollment Transfers 5,402 4.8
Total 113,315

Opponents of alternative education options have played a pivotal role in the use of those choices. Most recently, the lockdown of in-person learning supported by the teachers union during the pandemic angered many Milwaukee parents. In the city (and elsewhere in the state) there has been a tangible awakening of parents who previously were satisfied with their traditional K-12 option.

The pivotal teacher union role — one it clearly did not intend — goes back almost three decades, to the 1994 legislative elections. In that year the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) considered it a wise move to wage a scorched earth campaign targeting Republican candidates for the Assembly and Senate.

WEAC assumed Democrats would remain in control of the Assembly and, with its support, could capture the Senate. This would create a formidable obstacle to the pro-school choice agenda of Republican and then-Governor Tommy Thompson.

The strategy backfired. The Senate remained in GOP control and the Assembly flipped. One consequence was Thompson’s signature in 1995 on legislation to expand greatly the Milwaukee voucher program. Two years later he signed GOP bills launching Wisconsin’s charter school program and the Open Enrollment Program.

The future could see a change on the statewide level not unlike that experienced in Milwaukee. Last year, statewide, nearly 1 in 5 parents chose tax-supported options to traditional district schools. An artificial cap on enrollment in the statewide voucher program will expire in this decade. Demand for that program is strong, with many schools having long wait lists.

On the issue of school choice, Governor Tony Evers has an unenviable position in this campaign year. He must oppose programs taking root in Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee. He must tell out-state parents that their hope for more options is ill-advised. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates for governor are united in favor of universal school choice.

2 thoughts on “The Contrarian: Parents May ‘Break Up’ MPS”

  1. Ryan Cotic says:

    School choice is the civil rights issue of our generation!

  2. gerrybroderick says:

    Voucher schools are the perfect tool for fostering continued societal division based on ethnic, racial and cultural differences.

    In the past many decades conservative elites have done all they can to shred the principle of “The Separation of Church and State”; a fundamental doctrine insisted upon by the framers of our Constitution and one which empowered the celebrated notion of the “American melting pot.”

    The reason conservatives find that principle inconvenient is simple. Control of wealth depends upon the elite’s the ability to “divide and conquer.” And unity is anathema to that need.

    A watchful eye will quickly detect in the judgements of the Alitos, Comey-Barrets & Company, the relentless efforts on behalf of Federalist Society to ensure that the power of those elites remains undiminished. And certainly the disparate camps created through the use of vouchers will be most helpful in that effort.

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