Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade

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The bureaucracy defies a state law on selling vacant buildings

Teachers’ unions and their liberal allies are desperately trying to preserve the failing public school status quo. Witness how the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system is defying a state mandate to sell vacant property to charter and private schools.

Milwaukee’s public schools are a mess. Merely 62% of students graduate from high school in four years, and proficiency rates are 15% in math and just over 20% in English. Families are escaping to charter and private schools, which has resulted in 11,000 vacant seats and a budget shortfall that’s expected to swell to $130 million within five years.

Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade
PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

We wrote in 2015 about how MPS blocked charter and private school purchases of empty school buildings, which prevented high-performing schools like St. Marcus Lutheran from expanding. The state legislature then passed a law ordering the city and school district to sell vacant public school buildings.

Well, what do you know, the district still hasn’t sold a single vacant building to other schools despite 13 letters of interest from private and charter operators for 11 vacant buildings, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Following protests from the teachers’ union, a local zoning board denied a bid by Right Step, a private school for children expelled from Milwaukee public schools. The city hasn’t even classified many unused buildings as “vacant.”

Milwaukee’s recalcitrance is denying thousands of students a better education—St. Marcus Lutheran alone has 264 students on its wait list—while draining tax dollars. Annual utility bills for vacant buildings cost $1 million, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty calculates that the district could recover $5 million from selling its unoccupied real estate.

The legislature ought to punish Milwaukee for flouting the law by, say, snipping its share of state funding. But State Superintendent Tony Evers, the Democratic front-runner to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in November, would likely do the opposite. He wants to freeze and then phase out vouchers, which help nearly 28,000 low-income students across Milwaukee attend private schools.

If Democrats defeat Gov. Walker and take the statehouse in November, there will be nothing to stop Milwaukee or any other district from barricading students into lousy public schools.

Appeared in the August 14, 2018, print edition.

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