Manufactured Controversy Over Potential Sale of Vacant MPS School Will Only Serve to Hurt Students

June 11, 2014

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

St. Marcus School, a voucher school, is interested in spending between $5-8 million to develop a second campus for students in grades K-3. The institution – which currently holds a waiting list to get into its K-8 campus – had previously been thwarted from expanding when the city decided to sell the vacant Malcolm X building to a private developer. Now, with a new vacant property (Lee Elementary) in line for fair purchase, voucher opponents are coming out of the woodwork to deny the popular school a second chance at expansion this summer.

This new plan is attracting several critics who want to see the Lee building kept in MPS, especially if it comes at a cost to St. Marcus. Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Bob Peterson has been one of the most vocal opponents to the mere idea of a voucher school expanding, even if it is home to some of the most demanded classrooms in the city. Allowing St. Marcus to expand, Peterson suggests, would be a blow to the city and its schools.

However, selling Lee Elementary School doesn’t take anything away from MPS except for an empty building. Lee has been vacant since 2012. It currently serves zero children. It employs zero teachers or staff members. Its value to the community is solely as the shell of an educational hub.

Would St. Marcus be taking students away from MPS? It’s possible, assuming that the students on the school’s wait list aren’t attending other voucher or 2R charter schools. However, those students are unhappy with MPS (or their other current school) and do not want to be there. Why should they be compelled to remain in a classroom that does not fit?

St. Marcus has the demand to grow. Students who applied to the institution must currently sit through a waiting list until seats open up in the school’s classrooms. The active choices of families have made it one of the most popular voucher institutions in Milwaukee. Clearly, parental satisfaction is at a high level.

Opponents of the sale decried using public funding for a private institution at a recent public hearing. Amy Mizialko, an MPS educator who had previously taught at the Lee building, said “I want the best schools, but they need to be democratically accountable and serve every child.” However, that ignores recent legislation that dictates that all voucher schools will earn the same School Report Cards that all public schools do in the near future. Mizialko also blamed St. Marcus for taking away the students that eventually led to the closing of Lee Elementary. In doing so, she referenced the ultimate measure of democratic accountability – parental satisfaction and the freedom to move students from classrooms that fail to educate them. Satisfied families wouldn’t have let the school close – they would have gravitated to it and rallied around it.

Lee Elementary is not a glamorous building. It wasn’t even St. Marcus’s first choice for expansion. It is MPS’s peace offering to the voucher school, one of three fallback options offered to the institution after pulling a potential sale of Malcolm X Academy away from the school under shady circumstances. It’s more than 60 blocks from St. Marcus’s campus.

But it’s a space to educate students, and it’s currently vacant. Blocking the sale of this building isn’t about protecting MPS – it’s about hurting a voucher school that can’t grow fast enough to keep up with the demand from Milwaukee families. Those families have not found what they need to be successful in the city’s traditional public schools. They are looking for a new environment – something St. Marcus can provide.

MPS supporters can claim a hollow victory by keeping the Lee Elementary building from St. Marcus – but ultimately they’ll just hurt the children that they are claiming to fight for.