Demond Means resigned Wednesday as the commissioner of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. I don't want to make this about me, because it isn't. It's about a whole laundry list of other things:
- The way children in Milwaukee have been a Petri dish for education reform experiments for two generations now.
- The way those experiments have created an unhealthy atmosphere of paranoia and spite up and down the ladders of power in this city.
- The extreme polarization of the Wisconsin legislature, to the point where Democrats and Republicans may as well be extraterrestrial races exotic and unknown to each other.
- The way anti-tax hysteria has choked the life out of anything that used to be revered as a public good, from schools to libraries to parks.
- How those unwilling to get down in the mud with us in Milwaukee and try to make this place better are not merely content, but somehow feel inexorably compelled, to stand on the edges and force changes upon us that are neither helpful nor requested.
- And, most of all, it's about how deadly toxic that whole fetid mess is for anyone with half an ounce of compassion and a reasonably well-intentioned heart.
However, I warned you people that something like this would happen. You didn't listen. And now we have on our hands a five-alarm dumpster fire.
Much has transpired on the OSPP front since last I commented on it here, but I haven't commented because what else is there to say that I haven't already said? I will say it again now, but with perhaps less-opaque language: The OSPP as written was built on a lie, sold on another lie and frustratingly opposed by the "good guys" via an additional lie. Still, underneath those lies lay a sliver of hope that something good might actually happen for once to MPS.
Let's start with the lies. OSPP co-author Sen. Alberta Darling just told us again how sad she is that so many MPS students are "trapped" in failing schools. This is a lie; an oft-repeated one at that. Milwaukee has more educational options for more children than any other major American city. There are no fewer than five different taxpayer-funded K12 sectors in this city, plus means for Milwaukee children to attend public or private schools outside of the city at little or no cost to them.
Indeed, one of the single greatest predictors of a student's state test score within the Milwaukee Public Schools, I have found, is how often families exercise their choices. The more students move, whether between sectors or between schools within sectors, the worse their performance.
Children are not "trapped" in failing schools. Schools are failing because the "marketplace" doesn't work in education.
While I am not ignorant of the statistics about MPS, I am also not ignorant of the statistics about its competitor districts. As I and others who know what they are talking about have said over and over again, this work is not easy. There is no way that Darling knows that from where she sits, in glitzy River Hills, where per-student spending is $1,000 more than in MPS. From there, she can peddle whatever twaddle she wants and not have to worry about what happens to her constituents.
But please, Senator, hear me now: Milt Friedman is dead, and his philosophy of school choice should be buried with him.
The OSPP plan was designed not to help MPS; that, too, was a lie. It was designed to destroy MPS instead.
The plan's authors initially proposed removing a third of MPS' schools from the district's control, including popular schools that are widely seen as successful, like Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Audubon Middle School, Milwaukee Sign Language School and Riverside University High School. A third of MPS's teachers would be fired summarily, a third of MPS's real estate – which really belongs to the taxpayers of Milwaukee – would be handed over to private operators and a third of MPS' revenue would be eliminated. With no way to meet benefit obligations, the district would dissolve, leaving a mess for city, county and state leaders to try to figure out.
What the authors settled for, up to 21 schools in the first five years, would still have bankrupted the district, but in slow-motion, really stretching out the suffering for all involved.
Darling's co-author, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, gave that game away by insisting on a so-called student-centered approach, rather than a district-centered approach. While manspreading his way through a debate with the executive director of MTEA, the Milwaukee teachers union, he explained quite clearly that, to him, districts don't matter. In his mind, so what if MPS is destroyed? If we have a student-centered approach, he believes, everything will turn out just fine!
The plan was passed last summer without a single public hearing and without the support of a single Milwaukee legislator or elected official. Even Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who was tasked with overseeing the OSPP, has been clear from go that he didn't ask for it, wasn't consulted in the plan's drafting and told Darling and Kooyenga it was a bad idea.
The plan also came with no funding, not a penny to pay for a commissioner or do any of the other things the law demanded. Darling and Kooyenga, who's also from a district where schools outspend MPS, apparently didn't see any problem with asking Abele to pull off a minor miracle: improve the outcomes for Milwaukee's most-behind students and do it for free.
Abele is, as I have written, a dedicated technocrat. He is not interested in amassing power, but in making things work for people. Sometimes that means excessive power is given to him – as in the ridiculously diminished role of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in recent years, hampering their ability to check and balance the executive's plans and actions. Other times, it mean Abele works quietly to make good things happen around the county.
His choice of Demond Means for commissioner was inspired. Means literally wrote the book on how to close the achievement gap in Wisconsin and bravely put his own privileged district, Mequon-Thiensville, in the spotlight for its gaps and attempts to narrow them. He has long been an outspoken critic of largely Republican efforts to hamstring traditional public schools in favor of charter schools and vouchers. He opposed the cuts in state spending to school districts, he hates the revenue limit the state places on districts and he protested the statewide expansion of private-school vouchers.
At a MICAH-sponsored listening session earlier this month, Means and Abele insisted that the OSPP was in many ways an abdication by the legislature of its proper role in adequately funding schools. They said it was bad law. They said it was bad underlying policy. They said it was not at all what they would do if they were in charge.
Reacting to stories of public schools and Milwaukee families already stretched to the point of breaking due to lack of resources, Means said, "Ultimately it should be the state giving the proper funding for public education!"
If he and Abele had been saying those things in any other room, at any other gathering in the state where people came together to talk about the what's happened to public education in this state in the last five years, they would have gotten a standing ovation.
And hence the other big lie: People, many of whom are my friends and colleagues, believed Means and Abele were evil incarnate. When news of Means' resignation broke, social media erupted with celebration like I haven't seen since the Ewoks partied after the Emperor's death in "Return of the Jedi."
Means and Abele have been called snakes and liars and worse. They have been screamed at, talked over and labeled as racist. In one public meeting, Means – a North Side Milwaukee native whose sister and wife are MPS educators – was accused by a white person of not understanding what it was like for poor black and brown children in Milwaukee.
He took it in stride and pressed on with a good-faith effort to make the law work for, not against, MPS.
Means proposed that OSPP partner with MPS to bring a community-schools model of wraparound support to a single site staffed and run by MPS with MPS teachers and 100 percent of the (reduced, because screw Milwaukee!) funding being given to MPS.
This, opponents said, was a "takeover." And that's a lie.
Means, since his first public statements about his role as commissioner, has been clear that he knows what a tragedy takeover districts have been in New Orleans, Memphis and Detroit. "They have awful, awful track records," he told the MICAH forum. "We're trying to avoid another bad implementation of a bad law."
Means wanted MPS, parent leaders and even MTEA on the governing board of this single school to help with the implementation. Every single person or entity who had expressed skepticism about his commitment to help, rather than hurt, MPS was invited to the table and offered a real stake. Darling, Kooyenga and the state's powerful pro-voucher lobby were shut out.
Means wasn't the enemy. He was the firewall.
I kept waiting, hoping that opposition leaders would let this partnership happen and pivot to a November-focused strategy, directing all the building rage and frustration – feelings long festering about the way Milwaukee's children are treated but significantly amplified by the OSPP law – at Madison and at Republicans like Darling and Kooyenga where the blame belongs. The pivot never came.
For its part, MPS expressed reasonable concerns over whether Means' proposal was legal (the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel said it was) and, out of a sense of obligation to protect itself and its staff, countered with an offer that gave Means space in an under-used building to start a 3-year-old kindergarten program. When the inevitable lawsuit hit, MPS staff would be potentially exposed under Means' plan.
On the other hand, I'm not sure MPS's counter-proposal would have passed legal muster, either – and since Wisconsin doesn't generally fund 3K, that just adds to the OSPP's significantly empty coffers.
The district's opposition has always been tempered. It was wrong, in my opinion, but it was at least offered with the kind of civility you hope for when public officials deal with each other. The amount of hate directed at Means from all other sides, though, was amazing. Repeatedly in the last six months, I have considered how, were it me, I would have long ago walked away (and no, I'm not interested in the job now). It's one thing when my students tell me to go do unspeakable things to myself; they're teenagers and, as such, can sometimes behave stupidly. Their brains aren't finished cooking yet. But it is another thing entirely to have those kinds of things said by adults, especially adults who are supposed to be on the same side.
In his resignation, Means wrote that "the environment is not conducive to collaborative partnerships – something essential for positive things to happen in Milwaukee." I would like to think he meant that as a jab at the real villains, Darling and Kooyenga and the pro-privatization forces across Wisconsin strangling public education in the state who have created the toxic environment around education in this city. But I fear that is more likely directed at my colleagues who have abused and insulted him repeatedly, who have deliberately called his plan a New Orleans-style takeover when it was the furthest thing from that.
He added, "efforts to implement the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program law will become increasingly adversarial at a time when adversity is the last thing our children need." The adversity was completely avoidable. This could have been over months ago. We could have been celebrating today as MPS and OSPP cemented a partnership staff in tact. Instead, the firewall is gone, and the real danger is approaching.
We have a very short window, weeks or maybe a month, to undo this implosion with a new commissioner and a hasty new deal. For if we get into the next school year with no movement on a plan that by law was supposed to have been underway, hell will rain down upon us.
After all, does anyone believe for a second that Darling and Kooyenga will let this die now? That they will see what strong opposition Milwaukee mounted and surrender? No. Remember, they have been lying to us all along. They have been suffocating public schools for years. They have been giving pro-voucher lobbyists everything they want and denying public schools basic human decency and compassion.
This will re-invigorate the anti-MPS factions in Madison – like these yahoos. We could see commissioner Henry Tyson, for example, or Gus Ramirez or George Mitchell. Or maybe they'll go back to their original plan of simply killing MPS immediately by breaking off a third all at once.
Either way, the next year will be a monumental one for MPS. And when that year is done, MPS may not even exist.