The following is an op-ed written by Dr. Will Flanders, WILL’s Education Research Director.
It is difficult to gauge just how much the Milwaukee Public School system is struggling. The new state report cards will apparently proclaim that there are no "failing" schools – due, at least in part, to a re-weighting system that values growth much more than achievement in impoverished areas. But according to DPI’s Forward Exam test scores, a staggering 78% percent of students ranked below proficient in English, and about 83% of students were below proficient in math. The story for Milwaukee’s African-American students is even worse; only 7% of Milwaukee’s African American kids were deemed proficient in math. MPS and others on might consider this to be cause for celebration. We do not. Milwaukee can do better.
In late summer, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a law and policy center in Milwaukee with a strong interest in education reform, released a series of blog posts to jump start the debate about how to reform Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Dire situations require bold thinking and innovation. We were careful in our analysis, evaluating the potential success of each proposal, while at the same time identifying potential pitfalls and barriers to success.
Predictably these new ideas drew the ire of those who are dedicated in protecting the status quo. One critic, an OnMilwaukee columnist, was so threatened by these reforms that he devoted two overwrought columns to warn the public that those who suggest reform have a secret agenda to proverbially "carpet-bomb" the Milwaukee Public Schools system into obliteration.
Sadly, the columnist’s rhetoric is a sad reflection of today’s politics where people resort to hyperbole and name-calling when they disagree with a point of view. After all, those with different ideas about education couldn’t possibly have sound motivation like improving student performance and graduation rates among the most economically distressed population in the state.
We proposed three reforms that could have an immediate, meaningful impact on Milwaukee’s schools across sectors. The first is the creation of an Education Savings Account (ESA) for Milwaukee’s children. ESAs cut out the middle-man and allow parents the option to pick-and-choose the services they would like for their child from a variety of providers. Under an ESA, parents are provided with a funded account that approaches the current per-pupil expenditure for each student in the city. These funds can be used for a wide array of education enhancing activities, such as ACT prep courses or the purchase of a laptop. An ESA for Milwaukee would also move the city in the direction of a true educational marketplace, as public and choice schools would be forced to compete for students on a class-by-class basis.
The second reform proposal is an "enhanced voucher" with the aim of fostering creativity and experimentation among Milwaukee’s worst performing schools. Under this proposal, poor-performing Milwaukee schools – including public, charter and private – would be provided with an increased level of funding for a limited time to begin a turnaround plan for their school. For MPS schools, this additional funding might be used to further implement the community schools model that is being gradually expanded. For private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the additional funds might allow the schools to implement an after school or summer school program to decrease summer "brain drain."
Our third proposal discussed the merits of a large state takeover of failing Milwaukee public schools. Wisconsin’s recent proposed Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP) empowered the County Executive to takeover a few failing schools – though the initiative never got off the ground. As a result, it is fair to wonder whether the state should go further, taking over the worst performing MPS’ schools. This proposal would circumvent the union-captured MPS school board and empower an independent board to close, takeover or convert failing schools to charters.
This would be similar to what occurred in New Orleans and Louisiana. In 2014, New Orleans became the major school district in the country to become all charter, and the results have been impressive. A study by scholars at Tulane University that shows the RSD in New Orleans has had a significant, positive impact on educational outcomes.
These blogs should not be considered a comprehensive list of educational reform ideas for Milwaukee. There are many other ideas from those in the educational reform community, educators and parents that should be carefully considered. But what cannot be considered is doing nothing. The "peanut gallery" notwithstanding, we will continue to raise awareness of the struggling school system in Milwaukee, help high quality schools expand and raise new ideas of fixing the status quo. The children of Milwaukee deserve nothing less.