In my home-state, the largest and worst school district has 15 vacant school buildings, down from 27 a few years ago. Maintaining these buildings costs taxpayers in the City of Milwaukee almost three-quarters of a million dollars each year. The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district refused to sell or lease the vacant buildings to high-performing private schools or charter schools. Selling or leasing those buildings would save taxpayers’ money and provide a place for children to go to school. But, MPS’s decision to keep those buildings vacant is not surprising because private schools and charter schools compete with MPS.
What’s surprising is that the president of MPS’s board of directors, an elected governmental body, admitted that MPS was keeping the buildings vacant to prevent competition with MPS. As he explained, leasing or selling vacant MPS buildings to private schools or charter schools is “like asking the Coca-Cola Company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi so Pepsi can expand and compete with the Coca-Cola Company.” As the board president explained, fewer students enrolled in MPS means fewer dollars from the state for MPS. The full background of these statements can be found here.
MPS’s position is indefensible. Competition among schools allows students to exercise freedom of choice and attend the best school possible, and steadily decreasing enrollment in MPS over the years suggests that many students do not want to attend MPS. Preventing competition allows the failing MPS to avoid making improvements. Aside from the illegitimacy of a governmental entity’s attempting to prevent competition with itself, MPS’s efforts don’t even prevent competition – they just force competing schools to use buildings that MPS doesn’t control, thereby depriving MPS of money that it could get by selling or leasing its unneeded buildings.
MPS’s resistance to the school choice movement rings familiar with PLF. In particular, MPS’s tactics are very similar to those used by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which claimed that it need not consider its vacant schools when determining how many facilities to provide to charter schools. The California Constitution requires that school districts provide enough facilities to charter schools so that charter schools and traditional district schools have an equal student-to-classroom ratio. LAUSD misinterpreted that requirement and suggested that leaving many of its schools vacant would be better than putting them to use by providing them to charter schools. LAUSD’s opposition to school choice isn’t surprising, given the exodus of LAUSD students to charter schools. Fortunately, PLF has defended the charter schools’ rights – and ultimately students’ constitutional right to choose which school is best for them.