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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is This the End of Milwaukee Public Schools?

Walker's budget cuts MPS funding while expanding taxpayer funding for private schools

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"It's worse than we expected," Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds told the Shepherd after Gov. Scott Walker introduced his 2011-2012 state budget, which includes $834 million in cuts to K-12 public education across the state.

Walker's budget will cut $75 million from MPS as part of his 8% across-the-board funding decrease for public education, but Bonds says the district will actually lose about $200 million in the upcoming year. That includes the loss of one-time federal stimulus funds and Walker's targeted cuts to specific programs.

Bonds said that, taken together, Walker's budget is an assault on public education in Milwaukee and the future of the city as a whole.

"If you think that the cut to the MPS budget is only going to impact MPS, you're wrong," Bonds said at a community meeting held at Parklawn Assembly of God on Saturday. "If we're the fourth-poorest city now, just wait... We're going to be worse than Gary or Detroit."

Bonds and MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton are scrambling to make sense of the cuts, since they are in stark contrast to budget assumptions from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for the upcoming year.

For example, MPS had estimated that there would be a $200 per pupil increase in total revenue. But Walker is cutting revenue by $555.70 per pupil, a $55.9 million decrease. MPS had planned to use state money to continue to fund 99 math teacher leaders, at a cost of about $9 million. Walker is eliminating that support outright. Walker is also eliminating state funds for school nurses, about $1.5 million, or 19 positions, as well as $3.4 million for preschool to grade 5 programs. Walker is eliminating advanced placement and children-at-risk programs, as well as applying a 10% cut to poverty aid programs, bilingual aid, school breakfast, Head Start, gifted and talented classes and other programs.

Walker is also ending the residency requirement for MPS teachers, which could lead to increased neighborhood instability as teachers and their families leave for the suburbs.

The kicker, Bonds said, is that Walker doesn't seem to care about the effects of his cuts to public education.

"What is most scary is that when you look at the governor, it seems like he has no remorse at all, that it has no impact at all," Bonds said on Saturday. "That's kind of scary that we have a governor that has 100,000 people outside protesting and you see him on TV and it seems like it doesn't phase him one bit."



MPS Will Survive, Thornton Says

MPS's future is bleak, to say the least. Mass layoffs, school closures, larger classes and reduced course offerings could be in the works, although MPS leaders are promising to protect students from the full force of Walker's cuts.

"MPS is going to survive," Thornton told the crowd at Saturday's meeting. "There will be 82,000 children that will show up in September and we will work hard to provide the best possible program. [But] it won't be the program that they deserve."

Although MPS leaders are grappling with the revenue cuts, Walker is preventing them—and leaders of all districts across the state—from raising the property tax to make up for the shortfall.

"This is putting pressure on the classroom, right on kids' heads," MPS Board member Larry Miller said in an interview.

But wouldn't MPS be able to save millions thanks to Walker's attempt to force teachers and other public employees to contribute more to their health insurance and pension?

Not this year. Last September, MPS signed a contract with the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA), which is valid through 2013 and will save the district $55 million in health care costs per year. Contracts for the rest of MPS's employees, for the most part, are valid through June 2012.

MTEA President Mike Langyel said that the teachers' contract trumps any legislation that changes employee contributions.

"We believe that this contract stays in effect," Langyel told the Shepherd.

Voucher Schools Win Big

Rubbing salt in Milwaukee's wound is Walker's support for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), a program launched in the 1990s for low-income Milwaukee students that has expanded by leaps and bounds through the years.

At the same time Walker is cutting support for public schools, he's proposing to expand the voucher program to include private and religious schools in the entire county, lift the enrollment cap altogether, and eliminate the income eligibility limits for students. That means that students from wealthy families will be able to use vouchers worth $6,442 at private schools, although the school may charge students additional tuition. Walker is also repealing the enrollment limit for the virtual charter school program as well as accountability measures enacted by the state Legislature in the past session.

Conservatives have an unshakable faith in voucher schools, convinced that the typically non-union schools provide students with a better education. But research from the University of Arkansas shows that kids in Milwaukee voucher schools do not perform any better than MPS students on standardized tests despite their self-selection advantages. These schools are, however, cheaper to operate, since they generally enroll fewer special education students, are sometimes housed in alternative settings such as storefronts, and offer a limited number of extracurricular activities.

Although Walker is increasing competition between MPS and voucher schools, the governor would still force MPS to raise property taxes to support the voucher system. About 18% of MPS's property tax levy goes to the voucher program. MPS is the only school district in the state that is forced to raise taxes to support another district.

In addition, Walker is refusing to fix the voucher program funding flaw, which forces the average city homeowner to pay more than $160 extra in property taxes to support the voucher program.

"We are defunding our kids in order to provide the opportunities for the voucher program," Thornton said on Saturday. "Then, on top of that, we've been given provisions that we cannot tax to where we need to be."

Bonds told the Shepherd that it would be "devastating" if Walker's proposals were approved by the full Legislature.

"It's like the Jonestown massacre," Bonds said. "Where are the rational voices in the group saying that they're not going to drink this Kool-Aid?"