How You Define a Public School Says a Lot about Your Education Views

This piece ran as a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 4, 2023.

The definition of a public school? For a third of a century, Wisconsin has stretched it and bent it into new shapes — and fought about it. The state is still doing all of these, especially the fighting.

How people define a public school often says a lot about where they stand on big education issues. Look at some of the current controversies in Wisconsin:

  • A major lawsuit challenging the funding mechanisms and even the existence of the state’s voucher and charter school programs.
  • Decisions on funding the different sectors of schools in Wisconsin that were pivotal in reaching agreement over a state budget for the next two years.
  • Disputes over rules about how much private schools need to disclose publicly.
  • Enforcement of public regulations on private schools.

At their heart, each involves the definition of a public school. (Oh, and money.)

When you say “public school,” do you limit that to schools that are part of a traditional school system? Is a charter school, which operates in a somewhat independent fashion, a public school? Is a private school, including a religious school, a public school in some ways if it enrolls students whose education is paid for with tax dollars?   

Many advocates of the conventional public school system argue that Wisconsin can’t afford to pay for two major school systems, one public, one private, and that the financial health of the public system is getting worse, to a worrisome degree.

Many voucher advocates call traditional public schools “government schools” and say children who go to other schools are still part of the public, that they and their parents are making their own choices about what is best for schooling, and that they should get public support for their education.   

The definition of a public school was once simple. Neighborhood public schools offered general education, were funded by tax dollars, and operated as part of a system led by an elected school board. Private schools — Catholic or Lutheran or whatever else — were often religious, were funded by private entities, parents and individual donors, and were overseen by a private board or religious organization.

This now seems quaint. In Milwaukee, almost half of all kindergarten through 12th-grade children who are getting publicly funded education are not enrolled in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. The first urban school voucher program in America began small in Milwaukee in 1990, with a few hundred students in seven private schools. Now, publicly funded school choice options beyond conventional public schools involve several hundred schools and more than 66,000 students statewide.

Nationwide, there has been a surge of legislation allowing public money to support the education of students not in conventional public schools. About 10 states now have laws offering payments for any and all students to go to the schools of their choice.    

“I do think there are some pretty blurry lines on what you can call public education when we’re putting millions of dollars into something that is not a traditional public school,” author Cara Fitzpatrick said during a recent program at Marquette Law School. Fitzpatrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning education reporter, is the author of a book released in September: “The Death of Public School: How Conservatives Won the War over Education in America.” (I moderated the Marquette Law program.)

She said the book tells the history of the school choice movement and is not intended to advocate for who is right. Nor is she saying that public schools are literally dead or dying, given that about 90% of American schoolchildren continue to attend schools that are part of conventional public systems.

But, as a journalist, Fitzpatrick has a clear conclusion about who is winning the political wars over defining public education. The first sentence of Fitzpatrick’s book sets out her take: “Public education in America is in jeopardy.” She describes the book as “a story of how conservatives successfully advocated for an expansive version of publicly funded education — driven by the values of the free market — by adopting the language of civil rights while simultaneously attacking public schools.”

Milwaukee as the birthplace of vouchers plays a big role in the book. One of the book’s most prominent and interesting figures is the late state Rep. Annette Polly Williams. Williams was an early advocate of vouchers as a way of giving low-income children more choices in education.

But Williams, who was Black, became disaffected from the movement when she thought it was being taken over by white conservatives who weren’t interested in low-income children but who wanted vouchers for all children — including those who were already well off or in private school. The social equity goal that Williams favored has generally been pushed to the side nationwide.

The “sector wars” between public school advocates and school choice advocates continue to be heated in Wisconsin. If anything, the battles have become even more heated, fueled by the growth of school choice programs, the effects of the pandemic and increased partisan polarization. Consider five recent aspects of the continuing hostilities:

The Wisconsin state budget: Vouchers increase. So, to a lesser degree, did revenue caps for school districts.

The politics were complex, but the outcome was clear when it came to the deal between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at the heart of the state budget passed in June. Payments per students for kids in charter schools or using vouchers in private schools went up a lot. The revenue cap, which goes far in shaping public school budgets, was increased a more modest amount.

The Minocqua Brewing suit challenges Wisconsin school vouchers

Kirk Bangstad, owner of the Minocqua Brewing Co. and a strong partisan of progressive causes, is a central figure in a broad legal challenge filed in October with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The suit is labeled informally with the name of his northern Wisconsin brewery. The plaintiffs seek to have the state Supreme Court take up the case directly, rather than going through lower courts first. This is the broadest legal challenge to vouchers and charters in years. The plaintiffs hope the Supreme Court, with its new liberal majority, will see things their way.   

Requirements for Wisconsin schools to disclose financial data publicly

Backed by Republicans, the Legislature passed a law requiring schools to make a lot of their financial information more accessible online. Some private school advocates balked at being included in the requirements, arguing that they were different than public schools. Facing criticism that it’s hard to take public money and not be open about how it’s used, they backed down.  

Cutting off Holy Redeemer school in Milwaukee from voucher funds

Just before the school year began, the state Department of Public Instruction ordered that Holy Redeemer Christian Academy in Milwaukee be cut off from receiving voucher money for failing to meet financial requirements set by the state. The long-standing school, with leadership that is politically well connected, appears to still be operating (no one from the school has returned numerous phone calls) and is fighting the DPI decision.

Action such as this was more frequent 15 or so years ago, when accountability systems for voucher schools were developing, often in response to practices that were questionable or worse. These days, private schools generally act more responsibly, and such enforcement is rare.

New charter funding

Charter schools statewide generally draw less attention and heat. Many are staffed by public school employees, some are not. It’s a complicated picture — but it may be poised to grow. DPI announced in early October that it was awarded $58 million in federal funds to strengthen systems around charter schools. The money could allow dozens of new charter schools, or could allow existing charters to expand or open additional locations.   

The way the debate plays out in coming years over what is a public school and how different types of schools should be funded will be a key to the vitality of schools of all kinds across Wisconsin — which, ultimately, is a key to the educational outcomes of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin children.  

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at

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Measuring Geographic Noncontiguity in Wisconsin State Legislative Districts


The Wisconsin Supreme Court has accepted a request to take up a case challenging the existing state legislative maps. Petitioners in the lawsuit make several arguments. Some of the arguments ask the court to find that “partisan gerrymandering violates” the state constitution’s “guarantee of equal protection,” as well as “free speech and association rights” and the “Maintenance of Free Government provision.”

Less ambitiously, perhaps, petitioners also argue that the “current legislative districts are unconstitutionally noncontiguous.” This argument, if accepted, could allow the court to throw out the current map without making reference to partisan advantage.

The relevant section of the Wisconsin Constitution is Article IV, Section 4, quoted below in its entirety (emphasis mine):

“[As amended Nov. 1881 and Nov. 1982] The members of the assembly shall be chosen biennially, by single districts, on the Tuesday succeeding the first Monday of November in even-numbered years, by the qualified electors of the several districts, such districts to be bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines, to consist of contiguous territory and be in as compact form as practicable.”

Likewise, Senate districts are required to be composed of “convenient contiguous territory.”

Every square inch of land in Wisconsin is part of a city, town, or village, and many of those municipalities aren’t contiguous. In 1992, a federal court ruled that “literal contiguity” was not required by the state constitution. The judges wrote, “. . . [F]or the achievement of perfect contiguity and compactness would imply ruthless disregard for other elements of homogeneity; would require breaking up counties, towns, villages, wards, even neighborhoods. If compactness and contiguity are proxies for homogeneity of political interests, so is making district boundaries follow (so far as possible) rather than cross the boundaries of the other political subdivisions in the state.”

In other words, unconnected pieces of the same municipality could be placed into the same Assembly district. The 1992 ruling prioritized keeping municipalities intact over strict geographic contiguity.

In the early 1990s, it was Republicans, not Democrats, arguing for the enforcement of literal contiguity. Now, the roles are reversed. And, of course, the Wisconsin Supreme Court—not the federal district court then or any other federal court—has final authority as to the meaning of the Wisconsin constitution.

How many districts are noncontiguous?

Thus far, the specific contiguity-related statistics I’ve read have all been provided by the petitioners, who maintain that 55 Assembly and 21 Senate districts are noncontiguous. In support, their Memorandum of Law simply links to the legislative district maps provided by the Wisconsin Legislative Technology Services Bureau (see footnotes 1 and 21).

The remainder of this blog post is an explanation of an independent and repeatable method for measuring district contiguity across the state. My calculations yield slightly different results from those provided by the petitioners. While we both identify the same 21 Senate districts as being noncontiguous, I only find 52 Assembly districts with unconnected pieces.

Measuring contiguity

The basic building blocks of the current Assembly map are the census blocks used in the 2020 census. There are 203,059 total census blocks in the state of Wisconsin. Of those, 58,111 are unpopulated. Here’s what the statewide census block map looks like. We would need to zoom way in to clearly see the individual blocks in more populated areas. You can download this GIS file directly from the US Census Bureau here. It’s important to use the official Census Bureau GIS data because they are high quality and complete.

map of 2020 Wisconsin census blocks

Notice the census blocks that just cover water. These aren’t actually assigned to an Assembly district, but everything else is. The files showing which census blocks constitute each state legislative district are available from the Census Bureau here.

They look like this, with a column showing each census block number and another column showing a legislative district assignment. In Wisconsin, this is what a redistricting plan actually looks like.

table showing the first 10 rows of a block-assignment state legislative district file

After joining the Assembly district codes to the census block shapes, we can map all the individual blocks that make up a district. Here is the 18th district, on the west side of Milwaukee and stretching into eastern Wauwatosa. The large square in the center is Washington Park.

See here for more details and access to the source data files.

map showing the 2020 census blocks in the 18th Assembly District

We could conclude that this district is entirely contiguous using the eye-test alone. Sometimes, it’s more difficult to tell. In any case, examining all 132 state legislative districts separately would quickly become tedious. Fortunately, we can also measure this more formally using a set of open-source GIS and network analysis tools.

My code performing this analysis is available here in the files “AnalyzeAssembly.R” and “AnalyzeSenate.R.”

First, I subset all the census blocks in a given district. For each census block, I identify all of its neighboring blocks. Then, I turn that block adjacency list into a graph. Each graph consists of one or more components.

In a fully contiguous graph, such as that of Assembly District 18, there is just 1 component.

adjacency graph of Assembly District 18

The 88th Assembly District, on the other hand, consists of 3 components. In other words, there are 3 sections of AD-88 that don’t touch the other sections.

Adjacency graph of Assembly District 88

Literal islands

Recall that water-only census blocks aren’t assigned to a legislative district. To accommodate actual islands, I allowed the network analysis to identify graph components using the aquatic blocks as connectors, but I do not plot these blocks themselves. For example, here is the adjacency graph for AD-1 (Door County).

Notice that the offshore islands are assigned to component #1, even though they obviously can’t physically touch the mainland. So this district is fully contiguous.

adjacency graph of Assembly District 1


You can view my adjacency graphs for each Assembly and Senate district here.

Files showing each census block’s district and network-component-within-district are available here. This directory also includes tables summarizing the results of the network analysis for both the Assembly and Senate, along with accompanying documentation.

In total, 52 Assembly districts and 21 Senate districts are noncontiguous. Of those Assembly districts, 41 include some number of residents in at least two unconnected sections, as do 16 of the Senate districts.

The Assembly district with the largest disconnected population is the 47th, to the south of Madison. According to the 2020 census, 3,737 residents live outside the district’s main component. The 47th district also includes the largest number of census blocks outside the main component, both in total (129) and in populated blocks (61).

Adjacency graph of Assembly District 47

Nearby Assembly District 80 contains the largest total number of unconnected components, at 38 (not counting the primary component), although only 418 people live in these areas.

Adjacency graph of Assembly District 80

In the State Senate, district 16 has the largest population living outside the main component (2,282). The 27th Senate district contains the most unconnected components (32).

Overall, the 2020 census shows 7,953 Wisconsin residents living outside the main component of an Assembly district and 4,872 in an unconnected section of a Senate district.

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Faith and Determination Drive Milwaukee Port’s Director

You could learn important things about Jackie Q. Carter just by looking at the shirt she wore for her turn at the center of an interview program at Marquette Law School on October 11, 2023.

“God don’t play about me,” the shirt said in bold letters.

That leads to concluding that Carter focuses much of her life on religion, that she is dedicated and serious about the things she pursues, and that she is forthright in offering her perspectives.

Carter was selected by Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson in January 2023 to be director of the Port of Milwaukee. She is the first woman and first Black person to hold that position and one of the very few women or Black people to hold a major executive position for any port in the United States.

Carter was the guest for a “Get to Know” session moderated by Derek Mosley, director of the Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education at Marquette Law School. The new series is aimed at giving interesting people opportunities to talk about themselves and their work.

Carter showed during the hourlong program how intent she is on both religion and her work for the port.  “If you ever heard me speak in public, you know how I always want to stop and honor God,” she said as the conversation began. “The foundation of who I am is my faith.”

Most of Carter’s childhood years were spent living near Washington Park on Milwaukee’s west side. Her family was on welfare at times, and she was raised primarily by her grandmother, who was the person who “founded me in the faith,” Carter said. Carter was a student at several Milwaukee area colleges and universities, culminating in her receiving an MBA degree from Concordia University in Mequon, and she explored several career possibilities before going to work for Milwaukee city government, first in the city treasurer’s office and then in the budget office.

That led to her becoming the finance officer for the port, which is part of city government. And when the port director announced that he was retiring, he urged her to apply for the job. She and her husband prayed on it, she applied, and she was selected.

Carter is a determined booster of the port and its importance. The port is a driver of the economy not only of Milwaukee but of Wisconsin as a whole, she said. The port is, in effect, the landlord for shipping operations and other users of the 467 acres of land it owns, including the Summerfest grounds and the Discovery World museum. Mountains of salt, visible from the Lake Freeway that passes over port property, ismake up one of the best known commodities that arrives in the part, but Carter described other products handled in large volumes, including steel and agricultural goods.

One area of growth for the port has been tourism, with increasing numbers of cruise ships docking in Milwaukee. Carter said the first cruise ship arrived in 2014. In 2023, there were 33 cruise ship arrivals, involving about 13,000 passengers.

Carter, who became a minister in 2022, sees the hand of God in leading her to her position with the port. “The Lord was laying that path out,” she said. And she is appreciative of people such as Mayor Johnson and port staff who have backed her success.

But she is also firm in asserting her own qualifications and accomplishments. “I earned the right to sit here in this chair,” she said. “Nobody gave it to me.”   

Video of the “Get to Know” program may be viewed by clicking on the link below.

Get to Know: Jackie Carter – YouTube

Continue ReadingFaith and Determination Drive Milwaukee Port’s Director