Racine Unified targeted as a failing school district under GOP budget plan

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RACINE -- The Racine Unified School District is under renewed pressure from the state because it fails to meet expectations.

The Legislature's budget-writing committee voted along party lines Monday, August 28th to approve a K-12 education spending plan that includes a provision known as the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program.

Under the proposal, which still needs approval in both the Assembly and Senate, Racine Unified would get one year to improve its state scores. If it doesn't, voters in the villages surrounding the City of Racine could hold a binding referendum to break apart the district.

The Opportunity Schools Partnership Program would also allow for the state to put failing schools under the control of an appointed administrator, similar to a program that fizzled in Milwaukee in 2016.

"We are not letting up on low-performing schools and schools that fail to meet expectations ," said state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

The Racine Unified School District includes students from the City of Racine and several surrounding communities. Currently, village voters can hold referendums to secede from the unified district, though the referendums are only advisory.

Five districts fall under the state's failing category. The other four are outstate, but the GOP plan is tailored to Racine Unified.

Stacy Tapp, a spokeswoman for the school district, said administrators are "focused with urgency" on improving its state report card results.

"Our achievement scores appear to be increasing and our most recent graduation rate increased more than two percent," Tapp said. "We are confident this will be reflected in an improved report card this fall.

"We have advocated for our local legislators to consider a delay in regard to OSPP and appreciate them taking the time to learn about our work and progress underway," she said.

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said the villages surrounding the City of Racine should not have to wait to be part of a better school district.

Allowing Racine Unified one year to improve is "not a free pass, it is a possible one-year reprieve," Wanggaard said in an emailed statement.

Two years ago, the Republican-controlled Legislature created a forced-turnaround program for individual failing schools within Milwaukee Public Schools. The Opportunity Schools Partnership Program faced local pushback and a further setback after the resignation of the program's top administrator.

A change in state ratings means MPS no longer falls into the failing category as a district, and the OSPP mandate no longer applied to it.

In a separate move Monday, the two leaders of the Legislature's powerful budget-writing committee said they would not seek to expand the voucher program in Milwaukee and Racine this year, even as the program expands in the rest of the state.

Family income limits will remain at 300 percent of the federal poverty level in Milwaukee and Racine. The income limits will increase to 220 percent of the federal poverty level outstate.

The Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 on Monday to advance the overall K-12 education budget, which adds $639 million in new spending to the state's schools.

Lawmakers have said they hope to pass the entire budget next month, which would be nearly three months past due.

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