Milwaukee, other large school districts face takeover

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A sweeping proposal giving control of the lowest-performing schools in Milwaukee to a commissioner who could fire all the teachers and administrators also applies to other large, racially diverse school districts in Wisconsin.

Madison and Racine, while not immediately eligible like Milwaukee, could find themselves subject to the forced takeover plan adopted by the Legislature's budget-writing committee early Wednesday morning.

The plan is now part of the two-year state budget, which remains a work in progress in the Joint Finance Committee. The panel plans to advance it next week to the full Legislature, which is expected to debate it in June.

The overhaul plan was discussed privately for months, unveiled publicly last week, and not revealed in its latest form until around 8 p.m. Tuesday. The committee approved it five hours later on a party-line vote with Republicans in support and Democrats against.

Under the plan, an independent commissioner appointed by the county executive would take control of three of the lowest-performing schools in the district after the 2015 school year. Everyone who works at the school would be fired and forced to reapply for their jobs. The commissioner could also convert the schools into private — but non-religious — voucher schools or turn over operation to an independent charter school.

For the first two years, up to three schools could be chosen. After that, five more a year could be added.

Republican supporters of the plan said they wanted something dramatic to turn around chronically failing schools in Milwaukee. The most recent school report card ranked 55 schools within the district as "fails to meet expectations," the lowest of five rankings.

But Democrats said the plan does nothing to address the root causes of problems in Milwaukee schools, including high poverty, and they argued the Legislature should not interfere in running the city's schools.

Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, the only lawmaker from Milwaukee on the Joint Finance Committee, blasted the proposal as part of a history of diverting resources from public schools in Wisconsin's largest city.

"For years, individuals who sit on this committee and in this building have known that they have been raping the children of MPS," Taylor said.

The comparison drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, one of the plan's authors.

"I just find that sick," he said. "That's actually sick."

Taylor refused to back down.

"I get it. The word 'rape' sounds offensive," she said. "But when you consider the fact that 15 out of 100 kids can read on grade level while $89 million have been skimmed from the education of kids, and that you don't invest it in even the crisis areas, who are you fooling?"

A district would have to meet three criteria to go into the forced reorganization: have at least 15,000 students, get the lowest rating on the most recent district accountability report for two consecutive years, and get aid to transport minority students within the district.

Milwaukee, with about 78,000 students, got the transportation aid and had the lowest accountability ranking on report cards issued in both 2013 and 2014. Milwaukee was the only district to receive the "fails to meet expectations" rating.

Only four districts receive the transportation aid criteria under the plan: Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Wausau. Wausau, with about 8,600 students, does not meet the enrollment cut-off.

That leaves Madison and Racine as the only other districts that could be subject to the overhaul plan, should their district rankings drop to the lowest level for two years in a row. Madison received a "meets expectations" rating in each of the past two years, the only years that districts have been rated. That is the middle of the five tiers.

Madison superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said she didn't expect Madison's performance would drop to the point that it qualified, but she still opposed the plan for Milwaukee or anyone else.

"Generally, the concept of taking decision-making authority away from the superintendent is highly problematic," Cheatham said.

Racine received the second-lowest ranking, "meets few expectations," both years. District spokeswoman Stacy Tapp said it was too soon to comment on the legislative proposal.

Milwaukee schools, in a joint statement from Superintendent Darienne Driver and board president Michael Bonds, said the plan would undermine public schools.

"The so-called 'turnaround plan' forced on Milwaukee Public Schools is not a plan to improve academic outcomes for students; its focus is on finding ways to put public school buildings into the hands of charter and voucher schools," they said.


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