“I attended a meeting at an elementary school in my district, and the people there were crying,” said Milwaukee Ald. Nik Kovak from Riverwest. He was testifying at the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Education meeting on Tuesday, April 19 at the State Capital in Madison. He was almost the last speaker some seven hours into the hearing on lifting the cap for voucher schools in Milwaukee.
“I’ve heard a lot of anger in the last few weeks, and I’ve shared some of that anger, but this makes me want to cry. It makes a lot of people want to cry.
“It will mean the end of public education in Milwaukee.”
The Story of La Escuela Fratney
Another citizen who testified at the Committee meeting was Bob Peterson,fifth grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney, a two-way bilingual elementaryschool in Riverwest. The implications of the impending changes in budget andpolicy are extreme for his school.
“In the school where I teach,” Peterson said, “next year we will nothave an art teacher, we will not have a music teacher, we will not have aphysical education teacher, we will not have a librarian. We will lose our mathspecialist, a literacy coach, a paraprofessional, and six other classroomteachers – over a third of our staff.”
Our local schools and other public services in Milwaukee are going totake a hit if the proposed budget and policy changes are adopted in Madison.But the implications for Milwaukee schools are by far the most serious.
As Ald. Kovac put it, the changes to school choice policy, on top of thenew budget, are nothing short of catastrophic. Schools, he said, are far moreimportant than any other function of a city. “If you hurt a city [by cuttingback on money from the state], less potholes will get filled, less trash willget picked up, but we’ll survive that,” Kovac said.
“I work for the city, and I think I do a pretty important job, but whatI do is less important than the schools.
“You can take a couple years off some of the things cities do andrecover. I don’t see how you take a couple years off educating kids andrecover. I just don’t see it.”
The Funding Flaw
Trying to discuss finance policy of Milwaukee Public Schools iscomplicated, and no matter how much this article presents, rest assured thereis more to it.
Robert M. Costrell, a professor of educationreform and economics at the University of Arkansas, analyzedthe implications of the voucher program in an article in the Winter, 2009Education Next. In the early days of the program, Costrell explained, the decision wasmade to raise Milwaukee property taxes to make up for the voucher expensesdeducted from state aid. The impact was small because the program was small,and it preserved Milwaukee Public School’s budget to pay for so-calledindivisible costs, such number of teachers or school buildings.
As the program grew, there were attempts to reform the payment plan, butthe end result is that at present any financial benefits of the voucher programaccrue to taxpayers OUTSIDE of Milwaukee, while property taxpayers of Milwaukeepick up the tab.
Costrell concludes, “So who gains? State taxpayers and propertytaxpayers outside of Milwaukee. Who loses? Milwaukee property taxpayers. Andwhy? We have seen the mechanics of how this occurred, but ultimately, this is apolitical question.”
The political question is this: why would property taxpayers in the restof the state vote to help Milwaukee taxpayers pay for the voucher program,especially when that voucher program means they pay less on their own taxes?It’s a classic case of Larry Flynt’s description of democracy, where one sheepand five wolves try to decide what to have for dinner.
Chris Theil of Milwaukee Public Schools also testified at the statehearing. He explained how the funding flaw draws funds away from MilwaukeePublic Schools, which “leaves the MPS board in the untenable position of justallowing these schools to be defunded in that manner, or filling that hole withthe local levy.” This year, he said, “That hole that we have to fill is $50million.”
No Longer a Choice
Ald. Kovac made the point in his testimony that the changes proposed toMilwaukee Public Schools would not represent choice, but rather the end ofchoice. “It will be the end of public schools in Milwaukee being able to be therational choice of any parent in Milwaukee with the wherewithal to haveoptions,” he said. “And by wherewithal I don’t mean money, I mean the abilityto see the writing on the wall. The writing on the wall is thick and clear, andthe parents and teachers in the city of Milwaukee know it.”
If MPS schools continue to decline in quality, he predicted, parentswould be left with no options. “Private schools will become the only viableoption,” he said. “No rational parents with means WON’T send their kids toprivate schools.”
Kovak stressed that supporting Milwaukee schools is in the best interestof the whole state. “I’m not asking for your altruism” he said. “I live in andI represent the largest city in this state. If this city fails the way I thinkit’s going to fail, with these budget cuts, and this funding flaw and thischoice expansion, the state is coming down with us.” “Have a Little Faith”
His argument was met with a certain amount of cynicism from thecommittee chair, Rep. Steve Kestell (R) Dist. 27. At the end of Ald. Kovac’stestimony Rep. Kestell began addressing the problems his constituents perceivedwith MPS. Ald. Kovak interrupted him. “Let me ask you a direct question,” Kovaksaid. “You’re going to tell me that people outstate think that no matter howmuch money you throw at MPS they’re going to waste it, aren’t you?” “They’re convinced of it!” Kestell exclaimed. “And it’s been proven tothem year after year.”
Ald. Kovac replied, “We’ll do our best to spend our money moreefficiently, but if you stop spending money on education in a city of 600,000 with100,000 in the school system, what do you think is going to happen outstate? Weare doing our best, and there’s more going on than you read about in theJournal Sentinel. Have a little faith in us, because if you don’t have faith inus you don’t have faith in the state of Wisconsin.”
A Long Day
All in all, the testimony before the Assembly Education Committee wasanother long day in Madison. At the end of it all, tired and hungry, everyonewent off to dinner. Hope they let the sheep decide what to have.