Wis. Lawmakers Reject Milwaukee Takeover Plan

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For Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, having Republicans in control of both houses of the legislature was no guarantee that he could carry through on his threat to take over the Milwaukee schools.

The GOP is his party, and Mr. Thompson will cry if he wants to.

 Gov. Tommy G. Thompson

In a political setback for the popular third-term governor, his much-revised and reviled plan to reform the state's largest district essentially died last week after senators rejected a version sent over from the lower house.

The vote ended the tortuous path the proposal had taken through a special session the governor called last month mainly to consider that bill and one proposing campaign-finance reform. The legislature adjourned May 21 without either bill making it through both houses.

As a result, Wisconsin will not immediately be joining the almost two dozen other states with laws authorizing takeovers of school districts.

"I'm sure the governor is disappointed," Dave Blaska, a spokesman for Mr. Thompson, said last week. "I don't know if he will come back with another plan."

'A Huge Failure'

Despite the outcome, the governor should be credited with "putting the ball into play," Mr. Blaska said. "The easy call would have been to do nothing" about the lackluster performance of the Milwaukee district, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles J. Chvala called the bill's demise "a huge failure" for Mr. Thompson, who is widely believed to be warming up for a run at the Republican presidential nomination.

In fact, the Democratic lawmaker added, the governor's ambitions created problems with the proposal from the beginning. "It wasn't about education," Mr. Chvala charged. "It was about Tommy Thompson's building his r‚sum‚ for the race."

The governor made his threat of a takeover the centerpiece of his State of the State Address in January, aiming tough words at the 104,000-student district. ("Thompson Threatens a Takeover for Milwaukee," Jan. 28, 1998.)

Critics contend that Mr. Thompson did little to drum up community support, especially in Milwaukee, where the plan drew charges of racism. That's in contrast, they say, to the groundwork he laid several years ago for a successful plan to grant poor Milwaukee students state-financed vouchers for private school tuition.

Under Mr. Thompson's original proposal, Milwaukee's schools would have been given two years to meet state-set goals for 3rd grade reading scores and for graduation, attendance, and dropout rates. If they did not, the elected school board would have been replaced by a three-member commission, appointed by the governor, mayor, and state superintendent.

Union Restrictions Proposed

The bill also would have allowed the Milwaukee superintendent to ignore union seniority rules in reassigning teachers.

But some Republican lawmakers fretted that the proposed legislation threatened the principle of local control of schools, and legal experts warned that it might run aground on constitutional issues because it included the possible ouster of an elected board.

Many Democrats and some Republicans also questioned the abridgement of union contract provisions.

Working feverishly at a compromise that would pull the party together, Mr. Thompson and Senate Republicans came up with a plan late in the session that would have targeted individual failing schools in Milwaukee rather than the system as a whole.

Using criteria set by the district, subject to approval by the state education department, officials would have handed over such schools to five-member councils made up of two parents, a teacher, a mayoral appointee, and an appointee of the school board.

Yet Another Try

But that proposal was voted down last week in the Assembly, the legislature's lower house. Republicans there substituted a plan to set up a nine-member commission that would craft reforms for Milwaukee by December.

The commission's plan would have then been put up for an advisory vote by city residents in April 1999, with adoption of the reforms to come from the legislature and the Milwaukee school board.

Without discussion, the Senate rejected the watered-down legislation on May 20, and the legislature called it quits the next day.

Douglas Haselow, the chief lobbyist for the Milwaukee schools, said the session's outcome was a mixed blessing for the district, which escaped the harshest provisions but also lost out on the extra money the plan would have brought.

"The one thing we totally objected to was dissolving the school board," he said. "Many of the other provisions were helpful."

In the Senate version of the bill, the school system would have gained $3 million for summer school and $2.5 million for after-school programs.

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Pages 13-14

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Wis. Lawmakers Reject Milwaukee Takeover Plan
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