Policy Brief: Surplus Property Law Results in Just One Vacant Milwaukee School Sale to Charter School

WILL Policy Brief revisits how state law was thwarted by local actors for the last five years

The News: A new Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) policy brief reveals how a state law passed in 2015 intended to make vacant Milwaukee schools available to charter and private schools has been thwarted by local actors. Empty Handed: How Milwaukee Thwarted a State Law Meant to Help Schools reveals that just one vacant Milwaukee school was sold to a Milwaukee charter school in the last five years despite the intent of a state law intended to facilitate sales.

The Quote: Director of Education Policy Libby Sobic said, “This is a story of hard lessons. Good intentions were thwarted by a lack of taxpayer accountability at the local level. And a state law intended to help meet the high demand for school facilities has resulted in just one sale to a charter school. The problems haven’t gone away and it’s time to develop new solutions.”

Diving Deeper: In 2015, state lawmakers were fed up with repeated stories from Milwaukee where thriving charter and private schools couldn’t purchase vacant Milwaukee school buildings. A Surplus Property Law, supported by Sen. Alberta Darling and then-Rep. Dale Kooyenga, was added to the state budget and a new process was established that required the City of Milwaukee to facilitate the sale of dozens of empty former public school buildings.

But by 2020, just one Milwaukee charter school had purchased a vacant school despite interest by local school leaders. What happened? Director of Education Policy Libby Sobic takes a deep dive into the sordid history of vacant schools in Milwaukee in Empty Handed: How Milwaukee Thwarted a State Law Meant to Help Schools. This important policy brief reveals:

  • The implementation of the Surplus Property Law was challenged from the start because Milwaukee Public Schools continuously tried to prevent vacant buildings from being made available for sale.
  • Several private schools, like WILL client Right Step, tried to purchase these buildings. They were unsuccessful after the Milwaukee Common Council did everything in their power to prevent the sale.
  • Five years later, only three vacant school buildings remain available for purchase.
  • The need for facility access for private and public charters is more important than ever, as many schools have waitlists and as parents re-evaluate their school choices during the pandemic.

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