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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010

Internal MMAC Memo Details Education Policy Strategy

More privatization, less support for MPS

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A leaked strategy memo from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) details its legislative agenda for local education.

Not surprisingly, MMAC’s agenda supports privatization of public education and the erosion of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The business group seeks to increase taxpayer funds for voucher and charter schools; to open the voucher system to all students, regardless of their family’s income; and to provide more support for an increased number of charter schools.

Steve Baas, director of governmental affairs for MMAC, said the group’s agenda promotes quality education, regardless of whether the school is in the public, voucher or charter system.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a government-run system, a private-run system or a chartered system,” Baas said. “Our interest is not in who’s providing quality education, but that quality education options are being provided.”

But MPS board member Larry Miller blasted MMAC’s legislative agenda, saying it removes new reforms that make voucher and charter schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers.

“This isn’t about the kids,” Miller said. “They want everything. They want the money. They want the buildings. This is about control and money.”

The voucher system, long championed by conservatives and the MMAC, was established to allow students from low-income families to use taxpayer funds at a private school that accepts vouchers. Low-income students should have just as much “choice” as students from wealthier families that can pay for a private education, supporters argue.

Yet MMAC is considering legislation that would “remove income limits on eligibility” of voucher students, potentially opening up the system, which includes religious schools, to students from wealthier families.

Baas said the group merely wants to reduce the administrative burden placed on participating schools, which must verify the income eligibility of students. Baas said changes could include removing the income limit or changing reporting requirements.

“It’s as much of an administrative change as a fiscal change,” Baas said.

Redoing New Reforms

MMAC also wants to revise changes made to the voucher system by Democrats in recent legislative sessions. Currently, a new voucher school must be approved by an outside agency—the New Schools Approval Board, part of Howard Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University—before it can accept voucher students.

But MMAC wants to “designate a replacement entity for new school approval and simplifying [sic] the administrative requirements” for voucher schools.

Charter schools get a huge amount of support from the business group. MMAC wants to “explore the creation of” the Milwaukee Charter Trust, which would operate and finance a network of charter schools in the city, to lift the cap on MPS chartered schools, and to open charter schools in MPS facilities.

Baas said “it remains to be seen” whether MMAC would participate in the new trust.

Also on the table, according to the memo, is changing the governance of MPS. MMAC, along with Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (the chairman/CEO of Journal Communications, Steven Smith, serves on the MMAC board) had supported the mayoral takeover of MPS this past year, but the effort died in the Democratically controlled Legislature during a special session called by Doyle.

Baas said the effort has “petered out a bit” but the group would look at a takeover proposal if one comes forward.

He said MMAC’s agenda isn’t partisan since it’s about increasing the number of high-quality schools in the city.

“I think that legislators on both sides of the aisle got a message this fall that the status quo is not sufficient,” Baas said. “I think there will be an openness from both Democrats and Republicans to look at new ways of doing things better. I’m optimistic that we will have a receptive Legislature, but I’m optimistic that we will have that receptivity on both sides of the aisle.”

MPS board member Miller said MMAC-allied Republicans and Gov.-elect Scott Walker would be more willing to implement the MMAC legislative agenda than Democrats have been in the past.

“They’re gleeful,” Miller said of the MMAC. “They’re clicking their heels in the air over the right-wing takeover of government.”

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