In most places around the country, there are just two education "sectors," to use the lingo: regular public schools and private schools, mostly religious.
Here in Milwaukee, we actually have five distinct sectors. There are the public schools, MPS, including some charter schools that are staffed by and run by MPS employees; there are schools chartered by MPS that are staffed by and run by other operators, not MPS employees; there are schools chartered by other organizations, such as the city of Milwaukee and UW-Milwaukee.
Those three sectors are all public, operating exclusively with tax dollars (not counting any private grant money), and all subject to the rules and regulations of the U.S. Department of Education and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, including standardized test requirements, special education compliance, and more.
The other two sectors are private, meaning they are subject to few if any federal or state regulations. These are straight-up private schools that take no public money to operate at all, and schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program, which do take public money and, therefore, must report some information to the state. Most private schools in Milwaukee operate kind of as hybrids between the two, with varying degrees of both voucher-paying students and tuition-paying students. Few are all-voucher or all-private.
From the data we have, we know one thing with certainty: Many of the children in Milwaukee are hard to educate well. Urban, poor, minority children pose a seemingly insurmountable educational challenge.
Take, for example, a recent analysis by the daily paper's fact-checking arm of the relative success of schools taking public money where the enrollment is 80 percent poor and 80 percent African-American. MPS, charter and voucher schools fitting those criteria all showed dispiritingly low numbers of students scoring proficient or advanced on the state reading test.
The highest scoring schools – five of the top six are traditional MPS schools – all fell well below the state average (37 percent), even though they beat, slightly, the MPS average (16 percent). None of the other 89 schools in the sample scored higher than the average for the regular public schools overall – not independent charters, not voucher schools, not public schools.
To reiterate: This population of students is really hard to teach.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Indeed, I've spent every work day of my adult life teaching those exact children, and most of the non-work days of my adult life trying to figure out how I can do that better. If I thought it were completely hopeless, I would give it up and go sling hash somewhere.
When I was hired by MPS late in the last millennium, my school was in year two of a turnaround effort; because it was a failing school, it was charged with implementing a rigorous International Baccalaureate program modeled on a successful one at a different MPS school. A few years later, with the school still on the state's failing list, I helped write a charter proposal for the school, partnering with a turnaround organization.
That organization is long gone, as is the IB program, at least two subsequent partner organizations who tried to turn around the school and failed, and the even charter – it's back to being a traditional MPS school. It's the school where my friend Andy teaches, and as he writes here, the school is now part of MPS's "Innovation Zone," getting additional district resources, and still on the state's failing list.
(It's also the MPS school closest to the latest voucher school to be shut down by the state – a school with a 2 percent rate of reading proficiency. My friend Andy is going to get a lot of those students in his classroom this week – wish him luck.)
I present some history of this school not because I'm seeking sympathy or burnishing my credentials or any of that; it's to drive home the point that MPS, its leaders and its teachers have not sat idly by as students there, year after year, failed to live up to our expectations and standards. Many of you will get that, and I'm grateful.
But many of you will read this instead as evidence that the school should just be closed, or, if you're State Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), given over wholesale to someone else to run as part of a "recovery district."
That's right, Darling and her allies in the GOP and the local business lobby support the idea of creating a sixth education sector in Milwaukee. Somehow, they believe, a sixth education sector will magically do what the other five have failed to do, and that's educate successfully the most challenging students in the city.
Say it happens, that the school described above is handed over to this "recovery district." What would be different, besides the name on the letterhead? What would the new operator do differently from what MPS has tried over the last two decades, or what the other four sectors have tried in their schools? And who would be that new operator? No one knows. No one knows which schools would be handed over, how those schools would be staffed, what curriculum they would follow, or whether – and here's the big one – the schools would really try to teach the same students.
Because, as I have said before in other places, we're not talking about failing schools here; we're talking about failing students. The vast majority of schools in Milwaukee of all sectors, are, like Andy's school, staffed by talented people who believe in their students and want them to succeed and are willing to try many different tactics to get there – even, and sometimes especially, the failing schools.
But Milwaukee's children, especially the poor minority children, start school behind their white suburban peers, fall further behind over the years, and by the time they graduate, if they do, still end up in remedial college classes at a depressingly high rate. These are the facts, and they're true across all Milwaukee's sectors, they're true generally of urban poor children across the country, and they will be true of any Milwaukee "recovery district."
Unless the "recovery district" doesn't play fair, decides, instead, to select students with decent scores already to enroll at its schools. That would produce magical results, sure, but it's cheating.
So short of that, what would a sixth sector do to produce the results that the current five aren't getting?
I don't ask that rhetorically. I really want to know, I want to be persuaded. Alberta Darling, if you're reading this, tell me. Or those of you who are not Alberta Darling, if you know, tell me. Let me know what the magic is.
Because when I get to the end of this sentence, when I finish writing this column, I'm going back to prepping for school tomorrow, and I could sure use some of that magic.