- - Friday, January 23, 2015

It is almost indisputable that a high quality education can be a child’s one-way ticket out of poverty. Yet, officials in Milwaukee, one of America’s most impoverished cities, continue to be outright hostile to the expansion of school choice. When we reflect on the year that was, this problem only got worse in 2014.

The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system is struggling to educate its children. Last year, nearly three out of every four MPS schools received the equivalent of an “F” or “D” in the state’s school report card. The graduation rate is a staggering 60.6%. This all contributed to an 11% enrollment decline at MPS since 2009.

As a result of children leaving MPS, Milwaukee owns an alarming number of unused and underutilized school buildings. At least 17 MPS school buildings are empty, which cost taxpayers over $1.6 million in utilities since 2012. In addition, 27 MPS school buildings are currently operating at or below 60% capacity, according to a new report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. These underutilized MPS schools, compared to the rest of the district, are lower performing academically, have nearly twice as many police calls, and have a higher rate of student absenteeism.

If the Milwaukee Public School Board and city officials were minimally cooperative, these empty and underutilized schools could be occupied by high-performing independent public charter schools or private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Even though these schools have expressed interest in purchasing or leasing vacant facilities, MPS and the city have chosen to build barriers to obstruct their expansion.

The most public example of this involves St. Marcus Lutheran School, a private school in the choice program and one of the highest performing schools in Milwaukee. 90% of their students are black and 89% are from low-income families. An impressive 93% of St. Marcus alumni graduate from a traditional high school model in four years. St. Marcus, driven by their mission of rigorous academics and Christian values, has ambitious plans to grow its school system to thousands of more children.

St. Marcus first attempted to purchase Malcolm X, a MPS school building that has sat empty for over eight years. Despite offering to buy it for over $1 million dollars, St. Marcus’ bid was rejected. Instead, in December 2013, the Milwaukee Common Council and MPS Board approved a “deal” that would basically give Malcolm X to a newly formed group of developers, 2760 Holdings LLC, with MPS reacquiring it in 10 years for $1. Former MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton said it was “probably the best deal in town.” The organization I work for labeled it a “sham transaction” done to block the St. Marcus offer. The Wall Street Journal called it the “Progressive War on Kids.”

It did not take long to find out who was right. In September 2014, with tax credits not applied for and a purchase agreement not finalized, the developers backed out of the Malcolm X deal. To add insult to injury, taxpayers were left on the hook as MPS paid the developers $507,562 for work that was done on a contract that was never signed.

Ever determined to expand, St. Marcus then tried to purchase Lee School, a MPS school that has sat empty for over five years. They offered to pay the appraised value of Lee, $880,000. Unfortunately, the two-headed beast of the education status quo swiftly put its foot down on the offer. In May 2014, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett demanded that St. Marcus pay an additional $1.3 million, solely because St. Marcus in the school choice program. But, even if Mayor Barrett would have dropped his “school choice tax,” the MPS Board in June 2014 decided to table St. Marcus’ offer. In its place, they agreed to consider a proposal, submitted by a Milwaukee teaches’ union leader, to turn Lee into an MPS-affiliated school.

Milwaukee’s intransigence has real life consequences. St. Marcus had plans to educate 900 new children at Malcolm X and/or over 600 at Lee. Instead, today, both buildings are vacant and unused. Other school leaders see how St. Marcus is being treated and are deterred from trying to expand into MPS facilities.

The status quo is broken and we cannot wait any longer to fix it. Every day that goes by, the Milwaukee education system is forever condemning more children to a life of poverty. The effects of this ripple throughout Wisconsin, hindering our economy and hurting our moral fabric. If past is indeed prologue, then a solution is unlikely to come from Milwaukee. So, let us hope that Governor Walker and the Republican majorities in the legislature have a New Year’s resolution to make 2015 the year of expanding school choice and reforming Milwaukee schools.

CJ Szafir is Associate Counsel and Education Policy Director for the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty.

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