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RACINE — The idea to fully repeal Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, as proposed by the Department of Public Instruction and state Superintendent Tony Evers, has drawn a wide range of responses from local elected officials and local candidates running for office.

In 2017, the Racine Unified School District nearly had OSPP implemented in the district; its officials lobbied elected officials for an extra year for new policies to show results. The district was concerned that it would be graded by DPI as “fails to meet expectations” for the second consecutive year, which according to the law, would have initiated the OSPP process.

The district received a grade of “meets few expectations,” which is one grade above “fails to meet expectations,” and OSPP was avoided.

Had it gone into effect, it would have led to the appointment of a commissioner, and control of up to five schools could have been taken from the district and given to the commissioner.

DPI is seeking a full repeal of the OSPP and to have it replaced.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he is glad RUSD did not have to go through OSPP and hopes the district continues to improve, but he is absolutely opposed to any change in the OSPP language.

“I strongly support keeping the OSPP in there as a guarantee that any child who’s in a failing school district isn’t destined to a life where they’re not going to have the quality education they deserve,” Vos said. “If we allow the system to be controlled by education bureaucrats, we’re going to have what we’ve gotten for the last 20 years, which is a lot of urban schools without a lot of success ... (OSPP) is the last step when a district that can’t fix itself.”

Vos alleges Evers, who is the Democratic candidate for governor against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, put out this budget to score “political points.”

“We know Tony Evers is trying to appear like a hyper-liberal, play toward the special interest of the teachers’ union, so it’s not surprising that he had this proposal,” Vos said. “It doesn’t shock me.”

Vos is running against Democratic candidate Joel Jacobsen, a former City of Burlington aldermen, who is in favor of repealing OSPP.

“I’m following Evers’ lead,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen admitted he’s not an education financing expert, but believes officials at DPI and said the program hasn’t been effective.

“I think we’ve gravely undercut our schools and I think we really need to take a look at what has been going on,” Jacobsen said. “We really need to take a look at how to bring our education back ... I’ll be right in line with the increases (Evers) has proposed so we can get better oriented toward education as it should be in Wisconsin.”

Race for State Senate

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said he is also not in favor of repealing OSPP, but added there might be some room adjust the language to allow for flexibility based on the district.

“At this point, no, it wouldn’t make any sense to me to repeal something that’s holding (school districts) accountable,” Wanggaard said. “Since (OSPP) came into play, there were some things that needed to be fixed with it that we recognized as we went along … it may need to be tweaked as they go along and adjust it for whatever school district (implements OSPP), but until they show there’s a level of accountability that can be achieved by doing it some other way, I think this sits in place.”

Wanggaard said Evers “just wants to repeal everything.”

Bristol resident and small business owner Lori Hawkins is running as a Democrat to replace Wanggaard in the state Senate.

Hawkins, a former teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools, said she favors repeal of OSPP, which she said “penalizes a struggling school by cutting it off from the rest of the district, rather than working with all of the district’s resources to help it find success.”

“In an era when we would like to draw families into our district and encourage them to plant roots, the last thing we need is to turn our backs on our struggling schools and our children who attend them,” Hawkins said in an email statement. “We must reinvest in our public schools, make up for the massive cuts of the (Gov. Scott) Walker administration, and commit to working together for our schools to succeed for our children and for strengthening the very foundation of our communities.

Tom McCarthy, communications director for DPI, said those accusing Evers of proposing this budget for political reasons is “absolutely inaccurate.”

“Everything that’s in this budget, we would be able to do tomorrow and do well,” McCarthy said. “These are things that we believe as an agency, beyond Tony, beyond the people that are appointed by Tony, would have an immediate impact on kids. Our agency is majority civil service people.”

State Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, was an aide for Mason during the time the OSPP debate was happening in Madison.

Neubauer said although the state is early in the budget process, she is “optimistic about the approach Superintendent Evers offers.”

“States don’t possess a secret formula for making schools succeed; studies have shown that school takeover plans like Opportunity Schools do not improve performance,” Neubauer said in an email statement. “Instead of a one-size-fits-all program, we need to fully fund our public schools and work with districts, educators and families to continue improving local schools together.”

Assembly District 62

The state Assembly District 62 seat — held by state Rep. Tom Weatherson, R-Caledonia, who is not seeking re-election — is being contested by Robert Wittke, a Republican and the president of the Racine Unified School Board, and former state Sen. John Lehman, a Democrat.

Lehman, a former teacher, said he supports the repeal of OSPP and added it did not “get at the root cause of student achievement problems, high poverty in Wisconsin urban areas.”

“The state Legislature should focus its attention on getting the proper resources to school districts like Racine Unified, not writing statues that are nearly impossible to implement,” Lehman said in an email statement. “In the end, I know that we all want the legislature to help the urban districts positively impact student achievement even when many poor and challenging children enroll in our schools. Repealing OSPP would be a step in the right direction.”

Regarding the proposed changes to OSPP, Wittke said the School Board has not discussed the proposed changes and his comments are not on behalf of the board but is his position as a candidate.

Wittke said in a email statement that the primary reason why he ran for School Board, as a parent of children in RUSD, is to support high-quality education and to push for “reforms that lead to successful schools before being subject to these provisions in state law.”

“Having a strong education system in the state is key to building the workforce our economy is demanding. I also believe there has to be checks and balances that hold school districts accountable to the families and students they serve, as well as to the taxpayers that fund them.”

Wittke did not say if he is for or against a repeal of OSPP.

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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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