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360: A look at the proposal to break Milwaukee Public Schools into 4 to 8 districts

Posted at 7:23 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 20:23:14-04

MILWAUKEE — The state's largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), is facing a major shake-up if some Wisconsin legislators get their way.

The MPS reform bill would create a new commission made up of elected leaders and community members who would be charged with breaking up MPS into four to eight smaller school districts.

MPS classroom

To better understand what this plan could mean for you and your family, we go 360 on the issue, talking with people on all sides.

Some think the reform bill could help and others wonder how dividing up a school system in one city could make it better. George Lawson, an MPS parent and grandparent, says the fellow parents and teachers he knows are worried.

“They don’t think it is a good idea. They think it will hurt more than it will help,” said Lawson.

He thinks if the legislature wants to help MPS, they should increase the funding, not divide up the school system.

teachers mask kids school Milwaukee
Milwaukee teachers stand in front of their students at MPS' MacDowell Montessori School in masks and one in a plastic shield to be safe during COVID.

“If they were really serious about trying to help MPS, if you look at the overcrowding in the classrooms, they should put a little more money into it to try to better the school system,” said Lawson.

Another parent, Michelle Harmon, say MPS is a large district so smaller could be better.

“I believe anything, when it comes to education, breaking it up into smaller groups would probably be more beneficial to kids,” said Harmon.

She recently moved into MPS, so she doesn’t have strong feelings about the district, she just cares about the quality of education for her daughter and making it better.

“As long as the education is good and she is getting what she needs, that is the most important thing to me,” said Harmon.

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State Senator Alberta Darling in Madison, Wisconsin.

That’s one of the reasons state Senator Alberta Darling says she created this bill. She says it is to help students that are left behind by a failing school district.

“We still have the same problems as we did 30 years ago and we can't persist like this. We have to have a change and major reform to help these kids get up to grade level, and right now, they aren’t,” said Darling.

She points to test scores that show Milwaukee falls below the state. Before the pandemic, tests resulted showed 19% of students were proficient in English and 16% were proficient in math. Statewide, 41% of student are proficient in English and 43 % are proficient in math.

She says changes cannot be made if parents don't have any influence.

"Most school boards are smaller and have the ability for parents to interact and have some influence on the school boards. But when the MPS school board is so huge and the district is so huge, the parents really can't get access to making really big changes and that's the main reason,” said Darling.

MPS School Board of Directors President Bob Peterson sees things much differently. He says breaking up the district will discriminate against families without resources. Nearly 87% of MPS students live in poverty, according to the state. Peterson worries families won't be on an even playing field when it comes to choosing specialty schools.

“What the republicans said, 'well, they can just use open enrollment. Well, open enrollment is inherently discriminatory, because those families who decide to go to another district have to provide transportation to that district for their kids and a lot of people who work two jobs or have you know don't have a car, they couldn't afford the time that it would take to transport the kids can't do that,” said Peterson.

He says this would add more bureaucracy.

“The solution isn't to break that up into eight different parts so then you'd have eight superintendents and 56 school board members and and eight different groups trying to deal with mental health issues of students. What we need is support, we need resources and that's true actually for rural schools and suburban schools,” said Peterson.

Currently, the MPS reform bill has passed both the State Senate and the Assembly, though it is expected to be vetoed by Governor Evers. However, if the upcoming election changes who is in the governor's office, the top two republican candidates have said they would back breaking up MPS into smaller districts.

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