Bill would force Milwaukee Public Schools to reimburse private school transportation costs

School bus. (Photo licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)
School bus. (Photo licensed by Creative Commons  Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Should the Milwaukee public schools be required to retroactively reimburse private school parents for the cost of driving their kids to school for in-person classes during the pandemic?

That was the topic of debate at a Senate Education Committee hearing on SB221 on Wednesday.

A state law that dates back to 1967 requires school districts to provide transportation for both public and private school students. 

Whether or not the Milwaukee Public Schools broke that law by not paying for private-school transportation after the public schools went virtual for most of the last school year is “unclear” according to the testimony of legislative counsel at Tuesday’s hearing.

Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin all argued that Milwaukee deprived private school students of their rights by not paying for their school transportation during the pandemic, when public school classrooms were closed. 

“MPS said that because their own program would be virtual, they would not be providing transportation to private school students,” Libby Sobic of WILL testified. “We believe this is a violation of state law.”

Her colleague, WILL attorney Anthony LoCoco agreed: MPS “cannot simply withhold benefits from private school students on days that its own schools are closed,” he said. “And so what that means is that MPS is using the occasion of the COVID 19 pandemic to skirt its obligations to private school students.”

But Milwaukee Public Schools legislative policy specialist Chris Thiel disagreed. “It’s our position that we’re not violating the law,” he said. Thiel explained that the district interpreted current law to mean that, during the pandemic, “if you’re not a district providing those transportation services those transportation services don’t extend to the private schools.”

If, as SB221’s proponents argue, Milwaukee is already violating current law, why make a new law, committee members Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) and Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) asked.

“Doesn’t it seem like an admission that the law is not on your side if you’re trying to change the law?” asked Larson.   

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“I think you’ll have to ask MPS why they’re not complying with what, to us, is clear state law,” LoCoco replied. The new law, he said, “is a solution that would avoid the need for costly litigation.”

WILL wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a lawsuit he added, or the state could, as a punishment, deny Milwaukee public schools state aid.

That did not satisfy Larson. “Saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t actually legislation that changes anything’ … literally makes no sense because otherwise why are we here?” he asked.  “I’m trying to figure out — what does it actually do?”

The answer, according to legislative counsel, is that SB221 would require the Milwaukee Public Schools to pay parents who have been transporting their children to private schools during the 2020-2021 school year in the same manner that they did for the 2019-2020 school year. Rather than attempt to apply the complicated transportation reimbursement formula to the current school year, the bill just relies on last year’s numbers to pay private school parents’ transportation costs. As for whether or not the district was required by current law to pay those costs, “It’s unclear,” legislative counsel concluded in answer to Larson’s question.

The money involved, for the Milwaukee Public Schools, is substantial.

Thiel explained that Milwaukee is not fully reimbursed by the state for transportation costs either for public or private school students.

The language about reimbursement in the bill “seems to suggest to people who don’t know otherwise that that should take care of the situation and everything is covered” he said.

But the costs associated with private school transportation in the 2019-2020 school year were $2,682,095 and the state reimbursement for those costs was only $264,770, Thiel testified. “So there’s a net loss, just in the way this works, of about $2.4 million.”

The current debate, Thiel said, highlights the inequity of taking money from Milwaukee Public School students to pay for private school transportation costs. He expressed the hope that it might lead to a drive for a 100% reimbursement rate from the state to districts that provide for any private school transportation costs.

“If the state wants to provide this – and I just heard about the history going back to 1967 — it should at least be clear the dollars are being taken away from public school kids to provide, in our case, that $2.4 million,” he said.

“If the state wants to do a full reimbursement for private schools, fantastic,” Thiel added. “We will now be in a situation where no public school dedicated dollars are being pulled from public school kids.”

Smith was impressed by Thiel’s numbers, which he said mirrored rural school districts’ struggles with high transportation costs.

“It really rings true with me from a rural standpoint,” Smith said, noting that the cost of transportation for students in rural districts is “much too high  and takes away from money that could be spent in the classroom instead.”  

“It sounds like Milwaukee is facing that as well and I didn’t even realize that,” he added. 

Smith asked school choice lobbyist Bender if he would support a 100% state reimbursement for private school students’ transportation costs, removing the expense from local school districts altogether — “urban, rural, up and down the line.”

“If you care to draft an extensive substitute amendment to the bill, I would consider it,” Bender replied, making it clear that he considers himself one of the bill’s authors. But such a move “really goes pretty far outside the scope of this bill,” he added. 

“The goal of this bill was actually to try to keep it very narrow and focused. It’s not an ongoing issue. It’s just a one-year fix, to try to make sure that the schools and parents in this academic year are in some part made whole,” Bender said. “So, your suggestion goes quite a bit beyond that. But I’d be happy to consider any language that you want to put in front of us.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.