By Jay Bullock Special to OnMilwaukee.com Published Apr 27, 2016 at 7:06 PM
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.

Well, the election is over, and we can finally figure out who the liar is.

You might remember that over the winter, State Sen. Alberta Darling was "caught on tape" predicting that if he won the April election, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele would finally unleash his inner Milton Friedman and reveal the super-secret plan to destroy the Milwaukee Public Schools via the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP).

Shortly after OSPP was passed into law, Abele went on record saying his primary goal in implementing the law would be to hurt MPS as little as possible and to help MPS as much as he could under the law's expansive authority despite its complete lack of funding and unprecedented theft of property and power from the local and legally elected district leadership.

For OSPP commissioner, he selected long-time advocate of traditional public schools Dr. Demond Means, an MPS graduate (whose wife works for the district) and vocal opponent of the kinds of voucher and charter schools championed by Republicans like Darling. Means was clear in his own public statements that he, too, saw his primary role as a way to provide support for MPS and its students rather than "take over" any schools or usurp the authority of the elected MPS board and MPS Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver.

Still, when the recording of Darling surfaced, Abele's political opponents seized on it as evidence that Abele and Means were big fat liars and the vivisection of MPS was sure to follow if Abele were re-elected and Means allowed to continue as commissioner.

I recommended caution, putting my faith in demonstrated public school advocate Means rather than demonstrated public school opponent Darling.

Since word of Darling's plan, hatched with fellow Republican suburbanite Rep. Dale Koyenga, began bubbling to the surface of the GOP fever swamp almost two years ago, MPS and its teachers union, MTEA, have been vocally opposed to any kind of "takeover" or "recovery district" plan that would remove schools – students and property and equipment and funding – from the control of the board and into the hands of anyone else.

As originally envisioned, Darling and Kooyenga would have stripped more than a third of MPS schools, including almost all of its high schools (even relatively high-performing ones like Riverside or High School of the Arts), into a separate district under the control of an unelected board.

The final law, included without a single public hearing in the most recent state budget, put authority to remove a handful of schools at a time from MPS, passing control to voucher or charter operators, into the hands of Abele and his commissioner.

What MTEA has been pushing instead of any kind of takeover is a community schools model. A prototype is in place at Auer Avenue School, recently reviewed favorably by Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee's dean of education reporting. The model brings together normal school operations with health care and after-school services and help for struggling families in the surrounding neighborhood.

According to fellow teacher and blogger Andy Martin, MTEA and MPS are planning to roll out more community schools, with teachers and administrators visiting national conferences and, as he told me, "a lot of positive dialogue between administration and teachers about what issues there have been at the school previously, how to serve students needs and have our building seen as a resource in the community."

Martin says MTEA is really the driver here (no pun intended), being "great partners in helping look for solutions that are student-centered and community-oriented."

It is through the community schools model, MTEA has argued, and only the community schools model that real transformation of Milwaukee's lowest-performing schools can be achieved. Any takeover of the sort sure to be perpetrated by Abele and Means, they have said, is unacceptable.

Well, Means finally presented his plan to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and to Driver and her staff last Thursday. He did not unveil a massive takeover scheme. Instead, he proposed working collaboratively with MPS to transform struggling schools using – wait for it – the community schools model.

So we know who the liar is, and it's not Means or Abele.

By any measure, what Means offered last week was the best possible OSPP scenario. Rather than taking MPS schools out of the district's hands and turning them over to private operators, Means is seeking to identify schools to become so-called instrumentality charter schools operating under the control of MPS. This keeps students, school buildings and staff under the MPS umbrella and, importantly, keeps funding flowing into MPS instead of to outside groups that run charter or voucher schools.

Assuming MPS agrees to this partnership, the plan, laid out in a ten-page document that should soon be public, clearly states, "OSPP shall not enter into any contract or agreement with a third party for the operation or management of OSPP schools." MPS would be the only entity running these schools.

MPS already operates a number of instrumentality charter schools, which are staffed by MPS teachers (who are free to join the union and often do) and governed largely by MPS policies. They are, without question, MPS schools, though the charter status of these schools gives them some freedom to operate differently; Means's plan suggests these schools may implement new curriculum, for example, more responsive to the specific needs of students in those schools.

And Means is offering a real chance to test MTEA's theory about community schools by making the community schools model central to his plan. Means writes, "The community school model will afford OSPP schools to expand wraparound services to students and families through the following platforms: (1) extended learning opportunities (before, after and weekend school services), (2) onsite healthcare services, (3) social skills and mental health services and (4) family and community engagement."

MTEA could not have written a better description of what they hope to see in MPS schools. OSPP teachers would not even be barred from union membership; though Darling and Kooyenga initially envisioned prohibiting OSPP teachers from being unionized, that's not clearly in the statute itself. A member of Abele's staff told me, "Our lawyers are telling us that, although it is a gray area, there is no explicit prohibition for OSPP teachers joining a union."

The plan further includes academic help from the AVID school-readiness program and support from Chicago's Academy for Urban School Leadership as well as the University of Virginia and promises from deans of local schools of education. The plan also explicitly states schools will follow procedures common across schools in MPS, from having the same calendar and graduation requirements to administering the same district-level formative assessment – currently the STAR test – so growth can be transparently compared to regular MPS schools.

However, MTEA is not the only group skeptical of Means's plan. Means said Thursday night that Darling and Kooyenga are not supportive of his proposal, for example. Also, neither Driver nor the MPS board seemed excited about the prospect of OSPP's becoming a partner, rather than a competitor or perhaps a feeder, of MPS.

In fact, one early trial balloon Abele floated was to take an empty MPS building and start an intensive three-year-old kindergarten program, one that would build school readiness among poor children and families who would then go on, better prepared for school, to traditional MPS elementary schools.

The plan Means presented is very different from that. According to Abele's office, such a program alone may not have met legal requirements under the law, and since GOP legislators established no funding stream for the OSPP, starting a school from scratch with no revenue, even in an existing school building, would be a difficult undertaking.

In this way, it is true that what Means presented Thursday was different from what many people were expecting. It is still a stretch to suggest, though, that Abele and Means had been lying all along, since what Means laid out earlier this year as his guiding principles – support for Driver, support for MPS staff and support for MPS students – remains intact in this proposal.

At the meeting Thursday, though, Driver worried about who would hold Means and the OSPP accountable, and how. This is a fair point and has been one of my biggest critiques of the plan since Darling and Kooyenga unveiled the idea of placing unelected outsiders in charge of Milwaukee schools and students. The legislation creates this problem of accountability, and there is little taxpayers, voters and MPS officials can do but trust that Means will remain true to his promises.

Means's plan is also not without other big open questions. For example, the legislation explicitly requires that teachers and staff of the OSPP not be employees of MPS. Yet that's how instrumentality charters work: They are staffed by MPS employees. Means told me one of the most common concerns he's heard in the community is worry about what happens to MPS staff. "In my engagement with the community, the retention of MPS employees was an important point. We intend to honor the employment status of district employees."

And Means and Abele believe the plan they have can pass legal muster when the inevitable challenge comes, but there is no official public statement available from the county corporation counsel explaining exactly how. Still, Means said, "We are confident that the structure of the proposal is legally solid."

MPS board member Larry Miller wrote on his blog about one of the most challenging aspects of this since the beginning: funding. "OSPP has no money to pay anybody, so all of the support work is free and volunteer. The only money available is the $8,000 per student and the MPS administration and staff will do the operations, teaching and support. We are to do more with less."

Abele and team have offered promises of philanthropic help, but to date, nothing is in stone. With a year to plan for transitioning schools to be OSPP-MPS instrumentality charters, there's time to nail down some source of funding, but it will have to be soon, and it will have to be significant. AVID isn't cheap, and neither are the kinds of wrap-around services Means envisions. As Miller points out, the extra community-school supports cost up to $150,000 a year on their own, even as state funds for students in these OSPP partnered schools will probably be lower per-pupil than what comes to MPS for regular students.

The plan also calls for OSPP partner schools to be monitored by a board made up of MPS and non-MPS supervisors, with at least 60 percent of the board being non-MPS personnel. Who would be among that 60 percent? How will they be selected? I suggested to Means that he offer MTEA some of those seats, given the work MTEA has already done around planning and training for community schools. And Means would be on board with that idea. "I would be honored if the MTEA was part of the formal governance committee," Means said. "It would be a welcome addition to have the MTEA as an active partner. The MTEA has extensive knowledge background and information concerning community schools and the implementation of high-­quality instruction."

The biggest unanswered question of all is which MPS schools will make this transition, how many there will be (legally, it could be up to three) and how they will be selected. The initial pool is every school that failed to meet expectations on the last state report card. But those report cards are old – the state issued them in September 2014 based on tests given and data collected in 2013. Schools are completely different now; the high school where I teach, for example, will have a nearly 100 percent different student body in 2017-2018 when the partnership would begin than it had in 2013-2014, the year those last report cards are based on.

I have been provided a copy of a lengthy "school readiness assessment protocol" document prepared by Means, but much of the selection process really relies on utterly subjective measures like "culture and climate" and "talent management." And in my email interview with him, Means wouldn't commit to a number. But he did make clear that staff willingness to be a partner with him and the resources he'll bring would move a school "to the front of the list for potential partners." In other words, he would be taking volunteers first, not forcing a program on a fully unwilling staff.

Means did also say he is willing to work with MPS to change his proposal to better meet their needs, but he also made clear that the consequences of MPS's rejection of his offer of a partnership is dire: He would be forced to hire an outside operator, take funds and students away from MPS, and completely shut all elected representation out of any responsibility or oversight of these schools. In other words, if MPS declines this offer, every negative prediction made about this plan – by me, by MTEA, by Abele opponent Chris Larson during the election – will come true.

Speaking for myself as a long-time critic of the way Milwaukee's students have been used as subjects in various education experiments, perpetrated both by those inside and outside MPS, what we have here in Means's plan is something that makes a lot of sense. It is not ideal, but it is far better than anything anyone might have reasonably expected based on what Darling and Kooyenga threatened originally or, in all honesty, based on this layman's reading of what eventually did become the law under the last state budget.

MPS Board member Terry Falk, at Thursday's meeting, likened Means's proposal to a shotgun wedding. Yes, Director Falk, the Republicans have had a gun to MPS for some time now. This marriage – though it may not be entirely consensual – is the best we can hope for under the circumstances and certainly better than giving Darling and Kooyenga an excuse to pull the trigger.

I urge MTEA to give this plan a chance, and I urge MPS to approve the partnership as soon as possible. There is no time to waste in taking available opportunity to work collaboratively with Dr. Means in his approach to this partnership.

Jay Bullock Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.