Governor in Wis. Proposes a Limit On Districts’ Size

By Debra Viadero — February 20, 1991 6 min read

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin has advanced a radical proposal that would effectively force the Milwaukee public-school system to break up into four or more separate school districts.

“Education simply cannot take place in an atmosphere where individual children and their needs get lost in the shuffle of thousands of feet,” the Governor said in announcing the plan this month.

Smaller, more manageable school districts, Mr. Thompson added in an interview last week, would be “more responsive to parents” and would increase opportunities for parents to become involved in their children’s education.

The Governor’s proposal, kept under wraps until Feb. 7, when it was unveiled as part of a state budget package, would limit enrollment in every school district in the state to 25,000 students, beginning in 1993. Districts with more than 25,000 students would be required over the next two years to develop their own plans for meeting the proposed ceiling.

For now, the proposal would affect only Milwaukee, the state’s largest and most troubled school system. The district’s current enrollment of 98,000 is expected to grow to 101,000 by the time the proposal would take effect.

The next-largest district in the state, Madison, currently has about 22,000 students, according to an aide to the Governor.

National education experts last week said the proposal, if enacted by the legislature, could make the Milwaukee school system the first in the nation to be dismantled so thoroughly.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, school systems in New York City and Detroit took steps to decentralize their school districts, but they retained a central authority to negotiate teachers’ contracts and make other key decisions. Even Chicago’s bold experiment in turning over the operation of its 539 schools to local school councils has retained a central school board and superintendent.

“You’d have to have the feeling the system is just in awful condition before you get to that much change,” observed Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

But Mr. Thompson has already earned a national reputation for his provocative social experiments. His proposals have included a school-choice plan allowing some disadvantaged students in Milwaukee to attend private schools at state expense, and the Learnfare program, which penalizes welfare families with children who are chronically truant from school. A new welfare proposal by the Governor seeks to discourage out-of-wedlock births. (See story on page 18.)

The Governor said his newest proposal is his own idea and stems from his frustration with the city school system.

“Almost 45 percent of all our dropouts in Wisconsin come from Milwaukee, and that’s unacceptable,” he said last week. “You hear more and more about decentralization but nobody’s had the chutzpah to go the extra mile and carry it all the way through.”

A commission appointed by Governor Thompson last year to recommend ways to reform education in the state had also considered the idea briefly. The panel rejected it, however, saying the “ramifications of such a plan would require greater study than the commission has time to undertake.”

The plan has already generated strong opposition from officials of the state education department and the Milwaukee district, who called it a “simplistic” solution to the complex problems being faced by that school system.

“It doesn’t get at any of the root problems our kids have to deal with--the lack of health care, poverty, the lack of job opportunities in the central city,” said Douglas Haselow, a lobbyist for the school district.

Jeanette Mitchell, the Milwaukee school board’s president, said the suggestion is “ill-thought-out and full of problems.”

“It doesn’t address improving student achievement,” she said, “which is what we’re supposed to be all about.”

Under Robert S. Peterkin, the district’s outgoing superintendent, the system has already taken some steps toward decentralization. The superintendent 18 months ago divided the district into six service-delivery areas with regional superintendents.

“The Governor seems to endorse our efforts, then tells us we didn’t go far enough,” Mr. Peterkin said last week.

Mr. Peterkin and other critics of the plan also noted that it was included in a budget package that would effectively reduce the state’s share of education spending from 48 percent to 46 percent.

“This proposal may be an attempt to mask a budget that, while increasing the number of dollars the state is contributing to education, would decrease the state’s share of the education budget,” said Senator Joseph Czarnezki, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

A number of other Milwaukee-area legislators, however, reacted more warmly to the proposal.

“I think this is a good idea,” said Senator Barbara Ulichny, who chairs the Senate education committee. “I don’t know if it’ll accomplish what the Governor wants it to do but it’s worth a look.”

“I went to the [Milwaukee public schools’] central office a few weeks ago and there were wall-to-wall bureaucrats,” added Ms. Ulichny. “They wouldn’t know a student if they tripped over one.”

The proposal was also praised by Assemblywoman Polly Williams, the Milwaukee Democrat who sponsored the legislation establishing Milwaukee’s private-school-choice program.

“This means the people who serve on the school boards are going to be more responsive to people who live in their district,” she said.

Ms. Williams several years ago unsuccessfully promoted a plan to carve out a separate, mostly black, school district in the heart of Milwaukee.

Critics of the Governor’s proposal said last week they feared almost any attempt to divide up Milwaukee’s schools would have a similar result--the creation of one or more all-black districts.

The district has a minority-student enrollment of 70 percent. Most of the 30 percent of students who are white reside on the south side of the city, although students are bused across town and to 23 suburban communities under a voluntary, court-approved desegregation agreement.

“You can’t desegregate the city without extending the boundaries to suburban school districts,” Mr. Peterkin said. In a stance expected to generate opposition from suburban districts, Milwaukee school officials said any plan to redraw school-district lines in Milwaukee should include those suburbs “to guard against racial isolation and separatism.”

The desegregation question, however, is only part of a “whole can of worms” that may be opened up by the Governor’s suggestion, said Mr. Czarnezki.

“Just trying to figure out how to carve out four or five separate districts where the tax base is equal would be enormously complex,” said Jeffrey Mirel, an associate professor of leadership and educational-policy studies at Northern Illinois University. “You’d have to decide who gets what plant, what mall, what set of downtown office buildings, the Old Milwaukee brewery.”

Equally complex, other observers pointed out, are questions about negotiating union contracts, establishing separate taxing authorities, and dividing up centralized services, such as special-education programs.

Mr. Mirel, who said he was skeptical of the proposal, noted that past efforts to decentralize school-system bureaucracies have sometimes resulted in widespread corruption, such as has allegedly been the case in New York City.

But John E. Chubb, co-author of the widely publicized book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he saw some “theoretical advantages” in the idea.

“It should make the district more responsive to parents, weaken the influence of interest groups, and bring the leadership closer to the ground,” he said. “All those are compelling reasons.”

Wisconsin lawmakers and observers said it was too soon to tell whether the Governor’s proposal would be approved by the legislature.

“This is an idea we will take very seriously and that should be received with an open mind,” said Senator Gary R. George, the Milwaukee Democrat who is chairman of the legislature’s joint finance committee, which will consider the entire budget package. “That’s what I intend to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Governor in Wis. Proposes a Limit On Districts’ Size