By Kyle Olson, Special for USDR
MILWAUKEE – Hundreds of Milwaukee families have discovered in recent years that having a school voucher doesn’t mean much if your private school of choice doesn’t have the classroom space to accommodate additional children.
Such is the case for the city’s St. Marcus Lutheran School. The high-performing private school has a long waiting list for any available seats that open up, and it’s not difficult to understand why. By virtually all measures, St. Marcus Lutheran is outperforming Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) – its government-run counterpart – by a wide margin. The most telling statistic is probably the schools’ graduation rates: St. Marcus succeeds in getting a diploma into the hands of 96 percent of its students, compared to MPS’ dismal 65 percent graduation rate.
If families who qualify for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program could flee their neighborhood government school, many of them obviously would. More than 25,000 students already have fled the district, which has caused MPS’ enrollment to crater. The attendance drop, in turn, has led to a surplus of school buildings the downsized district no longer needs.
But MPS leaders don’t want alternative schools using the empty buildings.
MPS officials believe that St. Marcus Lutheran and other high-quality voucher and charter schools pose an existential threat to the district, which is why they’ve devised a very clever plan to block the schools’ size and future growth by denying them access to the city’s vacant and unused school buildings.
A new EAG short film – In Bad Faith: The Milwaukee Public Schools Protection Racket – exposes how Milwaukee city and school leaders go to great lengths and great expense just to keep students and their per-pupil funding trapped inside the troubled school district.
We can’t use it, and you can’t, either
CJ Szafir, the education policy director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, says MPS leaders are holding onto some 20 vacant school buildings – just to keep them out of the hands of private and charter school operators.
“MPS’ own records show that they spend over $1.5 million each year in just maintaining empty, unused school buildings – keeping them up to code, paying for the utility and maintenance costs,” Szafir says in the video. “That’s $1.5 million of taxpayer money (and) the vast majority of it is completely unnecessary because we know that choice and charter schools are interested in purchasing the buildings.”
These “choice” schools want those vacant school buildings because they’re far more affordable than most other real estate options. That’s an important consideration for choice schools, which receive substantially less in per-pupil funding than their government school counterparts.
The most egregious example of this is MPS’ defunct Malcolm X Academy, which sat empty for the past six years. St. Marcus Lutheran officials attempted to purchase the school to accommodate its pent-up demand, but MPS officials refused on the basis that the school was involved in the Milwaukee voucher program.
MPS school board President Michael Bonds infamously compared the request to “asking the Coca-Cola company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi.”
But even refusing to sell the building to a competitor wasn’t enough for city and school leaders. They actually inserted language into the building’s deed that barred any future owners from selling the building to a charter or voucher school.
Those are the lengths to which the Education Establishment will go to protect its K-12 monopoly.
Just when the Malcolm X Academy story started getting some national attention, MPS officials sold the building to a company – 2760 Holdings LLC – that will actually cost taxpayers millions.
School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender says the deal was only meant to keep more Milwaukee students trapped inside the dysfunctional school district.
“This is a real estate transaction to lock out a competitor and maintain market share,” Bender says in the video
According to Bender, MPS officials see the empty schools as belonging to them – not the taxpayers – and they’re “going to do whatever (they) can to keep the cash. They’re not thinking about the kids, in any way, shape or form. It has no bearing on what they’re doing.”
Bender’s right. By keeping the Malcolm X Academy out of St. Marcus’ hands, an untold number of Milwaukee children will remain trapped in a subpar school, and that will have enormous ramifications on their future success as adults.
As EAGnews CEO Kyle Olson notes in the video, “The cost of these lost lives cannot be measured in dollars.”
State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo is pushing legislation to prevent MPS from pulling similar stunts in the future. Sanfelippo’s bill would require Milwaukee school officials to publicly reveal how many underutilized buildings they have in the district and to create an “open and honest process for selling buildings to anybody who wants them.”
“We’re trying to bring some integrity and some openness into the process, so we don’t have situations like what’s happened at Malcolm X continue on in the future.”
This sort of thing happens everywhere
Milwaukee officials aren’t the first to use deed restrictions to protect their K-12 monopoly and give a thumb in the eye to their private or charter schools competitors.
Some families in Pennsylvania’s Warren County School District were upset several years ago when they learned officials were prohibiting an unused elementary school from being reopened as a school. As TimeObserver.comreported at the time, district officials actually preferred that the unused building be demolished before it housed another school, a position that rankled many in the community.
A similar thing occurred in Ohio’s Toledo school district back in 2011. According to watchdog blogger Maggie Thurber, district leaders attempted to use a deed restriction to prevent an unused high school building from being sold to a charter school operator. They removed the restriction after their sleazy practice was publicly exposed.
Perhaps the most notable incident involving deed restrictions came in 2012 when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Cincinnati Public Schools could not bar charter schools and private schools from buying abandoned public school buildings. In a 6-1 ruling, the court declared that deed restrictions violated an Ohio state law giving charter schools the right of first refusal when school districts sell buildings.
It’s obvious to most observers that deed restrictions are simply bully like tactics used by desperate government school leaders to stop new charter and private schools from opening, and to retain students and the state aid that’s attached to them.
Such individuals have clearly forgotten that school buildings belong to the taxpayers, and they were built to educate children.
“In Bad Faith” may be a Milwaukee story, but at its heart, it’s a warning to all Americans about the tactics the Education Establishment will stoop to prevent school choice from becoming a reality.