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Assembly OKs bill breaking up Milwaukee K-12 district

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly approved a Republican-backed bill Tuesday that would break up Milwaukee’s school district, which is the state’s largest, into up to eight smaller districts, which critics say would not guarantee better outcomes for struggling students.

The Assembly also passed another bill Tuesday evening that would allow parents to opt their children out of any school mask mandates and require schools to remain open for in-person teaching was also up for a vote.

Even if the Republican-controlled Legislature backs the bill that would break up Milwaukee’s school district, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would almost certainly veto it. He has said it was “too simplistic” and wouldn’t work. But the measure shows the direction Republicans want to head if Evers is defeated in his November reelection bid. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch supports the measure.

Republican supporters say the move would increase accountability and lead to better performance in the smaller districts, ultimately bolstering low reading and math scores for Milwaukee public school students. The measure had the support of conservative groups but was opposed by a wide array of others, including the Milwaukee district, Disability Rights Wisconsin and the state teachers union.

Opponents argue that breaking up the district and its roughly 75,000 students would not guarantee better educational outcomes. They contend that what Milwaukee really needs is more money to bolster educational offerings and other programs to help improve student achievement.

The bill would break up Milwaukee into between four and eight smaller districts starting with the 2024 school year. The idea has been floated unsuccessfully before, including in 2009 and 2015.

Democratic Rep. Sondy Pope called the measure “reckless, costly and vindictive” and would only create more administrative costs with no evidence students would fare any better. She said splitting the district is designed to push students into the state’s voucher system. Students in that program receive state subsidies to attend private schools.

“This is simply a racist attack on Milwaukee public schools and it is purely political in nature,” Pope said.

The bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Republican Rep. Robert Wittke, countered that lawmakers have to do something to shore up student performance in Milwaukee besides “backing up the truck and dumping more money into (the district).”

The Assembly ultimately passed the bill on a voice vote. It goes next to the state Senate.

Other bills the Assembly passed Tuesday would:

— allow parents to opt their children out of any requirement by school districts that they wear a mask. That measure would also require schools to be open for in-person learning. It is supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and conservative groups. Opponents include the state education department and groups representing school boards and administrators. Vos argued that the bill simply empowers parents to say their children won’t wear masks or be taught virtually. No Democrats spoke against the proposal that passed with all Republicans in support and Democrats against. It goes next to the Senate.

— eliminate income limits for eligibility to send children to a private school using a taxpayer-funded voucher. The bill also removes a cap on enrollment in the statewide voucher program. The Assembly passed it 59-34 and sent it on to the Senate. Evers opposes expanding the voucher program, so this proposal is also likely headed for a veto.

— add the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the list of 21 other days that K-12 schools must observe. Under the bipartisan measure, it would be up to each district to determine how to mark the anniversary of the attacks. Other days that schools must observe include Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bullying Awareness Day and Veterans Day. The Assembly passed the bill on a voice vote. The Senate passed it in September. It now goes to Evers.

— require public and private high schools participating in the school choice program to collect statistics on certain crimes that happen on school property or buses and make that data public.

Republican supporters say having the data available on school report cards would help parents make informed choices about where to send their children to school. But opponents say schools aren’t in the business of collecting such data, that it’s unclear what data would have to be reported and that such information could be misleading. No groups are registered in support, whereas opponents include organizations representing school boards, administrators and school social workers.

The Assembly passed the bill on a voice vote with no debate. The Senate passed it in November. It goes next to Evers.

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