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Racine Unified School District

The Racine Unified School District administration offices, 3109 Mount Pleasant St., Racine.

RACINE — The Department of Public instruction is seeking a full repeal of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, a program that would enable a state takeover of failing public schools.

After releasing its budget proposal for the 2019-21 biennial budget on Monday, DPI is recommending a “full repeal of the current OSPP language and replacing it with a set of supports for persistently struggling (low performing) districts — as requested under the department’s Urban Excellence Initiative.”

The Urban Excellence Initiative is a proposal from DPI that would increase funding for programs aimed to have a direct impact in the classroom like increasing funding for early education, providing more grants to schools and training for teachers.

During the 2017 state budget discussions, officials from the Racine Unified School District were lobbying elected officials to delay what could have been a state take over of some schools.

OSPP is designed to be an aggressive measure taken by the state in the event that a district the size of Unified or larger is given the grade “fails to meet expectations” by the DPI for two consecutive years.

Last year, Unified was preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. The OSPP, created during the 2015-17 legislative session, was first attempted in 2016 in the Milwaukee Public Schools system, but there were issues with implementation; eventually, no schools were part of the program.

The state Legislature then put in a provision in the 2017-19 biennial budget before district grades were public, specifically for Unified, that would have delayed the OSPP for an additional year.

The district dodged the bullet, having been graded as “meets few expectations,” which is a step above “fails to meet expectations.”

If a district of Unified’s approximate size or larger were to have the OSPP implemented, it would ultimately lead to a commissioner being appointed, and for control of up to five schools to be taken from the district and given to the commissioner. It also would provide villages and towns in the district the opportunity to have a referendum toward their own districts.

Although DPI and other state agencies are in the earliest stages of the budget process, Racine Unified Superintendent Eric Gallien said he is encouraged that the OSPP is being evaluated.

“In the past, we’ve shared concerns with our legislators about OSPP and the potential disruption it would cause RUSD or any impacted school district, so I would be happy to see proactive alternatives considered,” Gallien said in an email statement.

Why should it change?

During the budget debate last year, Cory Mason — at the time a Racine representative in the state Assembly and now mayor of Racine — said if villages like Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and Caledonia form their own school districts, it would create one district comprised of mostly minority students from mostly low-income households, and districts that are mostly white from more affluent households.

“We work so hard at the local level to collaborate with Racine Unified and with the county to really move the region forward collaboratively, and that’s been going really well,” Mason said. “I think any policy that would seek to pit one part of the community against another and potentially break up the school district, mostly along racial lines, would really set us back.”

Mason supports the repeal of OSPP and said the legislation would harm student achievement and collaboration with local community members.

“Whether it was intended with drafting of the language or not, the effect of the OSPP is going to resegregate Racine area schools,” Mason said. “And I don’t care if its 2018 or 1958, segregation is still a really bad idea, both for student achievement and for the kind of community we want to represent.”

As state representatives prepare to debate the budget next year, one of the questions they will be considering is: Should the OSPP legislation be fully repealed?

In its budget proposal, DPI said the OSPP has not been effective in correcting issues with student achievement and lists these three reasons the legislation needs to be repealed:

  • District achievement has rendered the policy moot.
  • Poorly constructed statutes make implementing the law nearly impossible.
  • Interventions are not research-based, eschewing more effective supports that positively affect student achievement.

Urban Excellence Initiative

As a way to close achievement gaps in larger school districts and prevent the larger school districts from having to go through OSPP, DPI is proposing increasing funding for districts such as Racine Unified and Kenosha Unified in several specific areas.

Called the Urban Excellence Initiative, DPI is proposing to replace language related to OSPP with increased funding measures for early childhood education, providing for additional learning time, more grants for teachers, expanding training opportunities for teachers and increasing collaboration with the local community. The department is hoping these measures will offset any struggles a district might have.

“All of those initiatives have the added benefit of actually improving student achievement, and it seems like those are the policies we should be pursing if we’re serious about giving everybody an adequate education and preparing them for the workforce that we need,” Mason said.

The Urban Excellence Initiative would only be applicable in the five largest school districts, which contain the majority of struggling schools. Those districts are Racine Unified, Kenosha Unified, Milwaukee Public Schools, Madison Metropolitan and Green Bay Area.

Tom McCarthy, communications director for DPI, said the OSPP “has not really worked as its intended policy design … it was also brought in without much public comment or hearing whatsoever.

“There’s been zero research that shows taking over or changing a school governance model is the best way to turn a school around. We here believe there are plenty of things you can do to assist schools that are struggling.”

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Ricardo Torres covers federal, state and Racine County politics along with the Village of Mount Pleasant. He bleeds Wisconsin sports teams.

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