In the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system, fully one-third of students fail to complete high school. With such dismal numbers, one would expect the focus of MPS leaders to be on education. Instead, they’re focused on political power and elections. While this focus is ill-conceived and harmful, it’s also likely illegal.
This week, Milwaukee radio talk show host Dan O’Donnell broke the story detailing how MPS officials are advancing a scheme to use taxpayer-funded resources to help left-wing groups conduct targeted voter registration efforts inside Milwaukee’s public schools. Instead of using resources to promote academic achievement, resources are being used to promote a get-out-the-vote scheme to benefit the left. While Milwaukee is the first city where this scheme has been uncovered, it certainly won’t be the last.
According to district records obtained by O’Donnell, MPS has ordered its administrators to “generate a list of students who are 18 and who will be eligible to register for and vote” in the April 4, 2023 election — the election that will decide the ideological balance of the state Supreme Court, likely affecting policies like school choice, voter ID requirements, right to work, government union collective bargaining, and many other issues. District staff members are also encouraged to connect with the League of Women Voters — a group long aligned with the left — to set up voter registration events to target Milwaukee students. Clearly, this effort is aimed at benefiting the left at the expense of taxpayers and student privacy. And it likely violates both federal and state student privacy laws.
Wisconsin law generally requires all student records to be kept confidential unless an exception to the law applies. One exception is for the disclosure of “directory data.” In Wisconsin, the district may only disclose designated categories of directory data, and only if it has informed the parent or guardian of a student in those designated categories and allowed them 14 days to provide the district with their disapproval of the release of their student’s information.
Here, MPS officials are ordering administrators to collect age and voter eligibility information. But neither age nor voter eligibility information is designated by the district as “directory data,” and as such, disclosing this private information would likely violate state law.
As O’Donnell noted, the district may also be violating federal law: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA provides a similar framework to Wisconsin law, basing federal funding to schools on compliance. If a district wants to disclose directory data, FERPA — like Wisconsin law —requires districts to give public notice of the information it has designated to be released. Once again, the information that MPS plans to disclose goes beyond what MPS has designated as directory information, a likely violation of FERPA.
Most concerning is that what’s going on in Milwaukee is probably going on elsewhere in states lacking good journalists like O’Donnell. Just like in 2020, it’s more than likely that left-leaning election groups have recently replicated this same voting scheme across the country.
So, what’s encouraging state and local agencies like MPS that have nothing to do with election administration to engage in this kind of unprecedented behavior? One answer is likely President Biden’s Executive Order 14019. Issuing the order back in 2021, the administration directed federal agencies to “partner” with officials of state, local, and tribal governments to effectuate more voter participation. Even worse, the order commands agencies to support “approved” third-party groups, such as the one MPS appears to be working directly with here, the League of Women Voters, to engage in voter registration efforts on agency premises.
Is the Milwaukee Public Schools scandal a result of the Biden executive order? Is the U.S. Department of Education involved? Unfortunately, the public won’t know the answer to these important questions until groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability are able to force disclosure of the information through legal action like the lawsuit we filed last year. We demanded information from Biden’s Department of Justice, which we will receive once the lawsuit has finished making its way through the legal process.
The scandal at MPS is another example of how the cynicism of the left leads to the weaponizing of government against the administration of fair elections. In a school district starving for responsible adult leadership and in dire need of better educational outcomes, it is astonishing that an opportunity for civic engagement is being used to sway an election for the left. Milwaukee Public Schools owes the people of Wisconsin answers.
Fortunately, state legislators across the country, including those serving Wisconsin, possess important oversight tools they can use to shed light on this scheme and help stop it. For the sake of families in Milwaukee and across the country, they must.