John Gurda wrote this weekend on the Socialist roots of the Milwaukee Public School’s (MPS) Department of Recreation and Community Services. The department offers sports programs, community education, and various other activities for the Milwaukee community. Gurda argues, and I agree, that Milwaukee Recreation is an asset to the city and its residents. The question I have is should it be part of MPS?
I do not question the ability of MPS to run the department, just the rationale for having a program not directly related to the education of MPS students housed in the school district. Maybe the task of providing recreational opportunities for residents of Milwaukee would be better placed at the City or County.
Perhaps more important, Milwaukee Recreation is funded through MPS; 4.4% of the 2010 MPS tax levy ($13.3 million) was for this department. This raises a broader question, should the MPS tax levy be used to raise funds for anything beyond educating MPS pupils?
In 2010, only about 80% ($244,262,102) of the MPS levy went towards regular district operations.
- 13.2% ($40,476,118) paid a portion of the costs of pupils in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
- 2.6% ($7,914,072) paid a portion of the cost of pupils in independent charter schools
- 4.4% ($13,334,418) paid for the Department of Recreation and Community Services through the community service levy
All of these programs serve Milwaukee citizens and it is logical that Milwaukee taxpayers contribute to their funding. However, using the school district as the taxing authority to pay for non-MPS programs complicates education reform efforts.
Debates on the merits of school choice, for example, inevitably bog down on the issue of what has been deemed the funding flaw. The funding flaw refers to the fact that MPS levies for a portion of the cost of pupils it does not get to count for purposes of property valuation. While an issue for Milwaukee taxpayers, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving student achievement.
And the issue is not Milwaukee’s alone. Recall that one of the things tripping up the authorization of the Madison Prep charter school was the union status of school employees.
A key component to improving education in Milwaukee and elsewhere is removing the distractions that too often prevent efforts for real reform from beginning. Those seeking to raise student achievement levels in Wisconsin would be wise to consider what a school district should and should not be, and not let issues unrelated to student performance derail positive change.