Republicans Push Bill to Sell Off Milwaukee Schools

School privatization vultures flocked to the Wisconsin State Capitol last week to testify in support of SB 318, a bill that would force the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system and the city of Milwaukee to sell buildings, including buildings that MPS already has plans for.

“In other words, this is against free enterprise,” state Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) said during an executive session on Monday. “It’s one more example of big government Republicans sticking their noses into local affairs and I think that’s wrong.”

The forced sale of MPS school buildings to religious institutions and private charter school operators marks the end stage of a decades-long assault on public education in the city. Having been starved of financial resources for years, MPS is now being told by the Republican-dominated legislature that they have too many “failing” schools and that the market has to step in to provide “quality educational opportunities” to the children whom the schools are failing.

But SB 318 has nothing to do with education. It is all about helping hedge funds, real estate brokers and financial institutions that put together financing packages for private school operators make a quick buck off of public resources at the expense of taxpayers. It also further erodes the MPS’ and the city’s decision-making authority around community development projects.

Those pushing the measure include Heather Heaviland, director of real estate services for IFF, a Community Development Financial Institution that helps charter school operators take advantage of government-subsidized grants, tax credits and low interest loan programs designed for urban renewal projects to underwrite their facility costs.

Heaviland, who is not a registered lobbyist in Wisconsin according to Government Accountability Board records, lobbied for a similar bill last session. Act 17 pressured the city of Milwaukee to sell vacant school buildings. According to Heaviland, “Act 17 didn’t go far enough.”

The city never used the authority under Act 17 to sell any buildings, and SB 318 is an attempt to tighten the screws.

An amendment to the bill that passed out of committee this morning eliminated part of the definition of “underutilized school buildings” that said: “Less than 40 percent of the square footage in the building is used for 24 instruction of pupils on a daily, school day basis.” Had it remained in the proposal, that would have meant that kids attending high-performing schools like Golda Meir Elementary, which just expanded into a different building, would have been evicted.

Both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton testified against the bill claiming it was too restrictive and not well thought out. Thornton said that under the proposal, nine schools that serve more than 3,000 kids would have to be shut down to make way for religious and private charter schools. “To evict 3,000 kids would be the first eviction of this kind of schools that are doing well in the history of this country,” he said.

Enrollment in the district has been growing, according to district figures. Superintendent Thornton recently asked the committee: “If we continue to grow – and I see trends moving up – if all the facilities are gone, where do I go? How do I use them to leverage charter opportunities for young people?”

School Choice Wisconsin lobbyist Jim Bender’s answer was simple: “It’s a market share issue,” he said. Bender, who has been pushing back against calls for greater accountability for religious schools that receive state voucher money, was accompanied by Michael Koester, the director of Christian Education of St. Lucas church and its associated school.

Koester pleaded with the committee to pass the bill. “Our church and school have hoped for some time that we would have an opportunity to purchase the Dover St. School property,” he said. But there is a competing proposal for the building backed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which would turn it into a dormitory for teachers, similar to projects in Newark, Baltimore and New Orleans.

SB 318 would eliminate competition from non-school bidders on MPS property, thus allowing religious and private schools to lowball the district. The bill is being fast-tracked through the legislative process in an attempt to undermine real estate deals that are already in the works, according to Sen. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee), chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications. An Assembly version of the bill was introduced late last week and will receive a public hearing this Wednesday. The measure could pass into law as soon as next week.

Photo: Flickr user, creative commons licensed.