"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it" is a (possibly apocryphal) statement made by an officer who had just ordered U.S. forces to bomb the mess out of a Vietnamese city in 1968. The quote is, real or not, now in the American zeitgeist as the kind of paradoxical, oft-governmental thinking that leads to well-intentioned people and policies doing damage far greater than whatever they set out to fix in the first place.
In August, I wrote here at OnMilwaukee about how the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) was posting a series of policy proposals aimed at improving the overall state of K-12 education in the city of Milwaukee. WILL is known both for its legal representation of Milwaukee private schools in suits against the Milwaukee Public Schools and for its strong connections to Republican Wisconsin lawmakers. You don't have to go back and read my previous posting to put two and two together: Of course WILL advocated a massive expansion of school voucher use in the city.
Last week, WILL's Will Flanders posted the third and final installment of this series of policy proposals, in which he argues, as did that officer in Vietnam, that the state must destroy MPS in order to save it. His weapon of choice is immediate full-scale implementation of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.
For those of you just joining us, the OSPP was designed to remove schools, students and property from under MPS control and hand them over, wholesale, to outside K-12 operators. Flanders argues this should be done immediately with 55 schools, a third of all MPS schools. That would, simply, send MPS into bankruptcy and create chaos for the state and city, not to mention parents and children. Without state or federal funding for the 30,000-plus students summarily removed from MPS rolls, the district would be unable to meet legacy costs, make debt payments or adequately staff remaining schools under the state's current per-pupil revenue limit.
Implementation of the OSPP as originally intended would move between one and five schools to this new program at a time, which would lead to something more like death by a thousand cuts rather than by carpet-bombing. I am not sure which is worse, but Demond Means – the first "commissioner" appointed to lead the OSPP – thoughtfully tried to negotiate a path that would do neither of those things.
Means resigned as commissioner, ironically, the day after WILL threatened to sue him personally for trying to work with, rather than against, MPS, its democratically elected Board of School Directors and superintendent. In Flanders' telling, it was MPS's "refusal to cooperate" that pushed Means out, though in fact both Means and MPS had, before WILL's threatened lawsuit, been ironing out the kinks in their relationship and both were on record as saying they would continue to work with each other.
Flanders uses the New Orleans Recovery School District as his blueprint for how a wide-scale implementation of OSPP could look in Milwaukee. If a New Orleans-style RSD is WILL's ultimate goal for MPS, then it's obvious why WILL threatened suit against Means: Means repeatedly assured MPS, its parents and its teachers that he didn't want to create in Milwaukee something like the RSD or similar recovery districts in Detroit and Memphis.
Means was right; Flanders is wrong. Some of Flanders' wrongness is minor stuff, like pretending Milwaukee students are trapped in failing schools, just accepting as a given that we all agree with him that student failure is solely the schools' fault, and ignoring that Milwaukee offers the nation's broadest marketplace of publicly funded school choices already and adding another K-12 sector is unlikely to change anything. But several major points here deserve closer scrutiny.
First, Flanders neglects to tell readers that the list of 55 schools he wants to immediately privatize is three years old. The list is based on Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction school report cards for the 2013-2014 school year; these are the most recent such report cards available. Because the state used three different measures of student achievement in the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, DPI did not issue any school or district report cards for 2014-15. The ones for 2015-16 are not yet available and probably will not be for another month or two. In other words, the schools WILL targets here by and large no longer even enroll the students whose test scores put those schools on the list in the first place.
Further, among those 55 schools are schools MPS has already closed; schools in which MPS has implemented new reform measures like the "community schools" model and partnerships with UWM and successful Milwaukee-based charter operators like Seeds of Health; and schools that are consistently ranked as among the best in the state by national organizations. Flanders and WILL pretend MPS is doing nothing to help the children in these schools learn and improve, when the opposite is true.
Second, Flanders asserts that implementation of the OSPP would help students by the "removal of MPS School Board and unions as barriers to reform." Flanders does not support his claim with a single example of meaningful reform blocked by the MPS Board of School Directors or the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. Instead, he talks about "unshackl[ing] MPS’ lowest performing schools from the red tape and obstinacy of the education status quo." Sounds bold! But the only thing he includes as evidence of "obstinacy" is something about "the hiring of teachers in areas of great need or because of specialized expertise" – efforts not blocked by MTEA or the Board in any way. Neither the Board nor MTEA has a say in whom MPS hires for any given classroom.
As I have written previously, support for the OSPP and other dramatic measures seems to assume that the MPS board and MTEA are acting as they did 20 years ago, when the district did enter a period of decline and stagnation. I would argue that era has been over since at least 2010, as the current superintendent and her predecessor have catalyzed considerable new community engagement and district-led change. In addition to "community schools," MPS and MTEA have worked to expand successful programs like Montessori – MPS has the largest Montessori enrollment of any public school district in the nation – and language immersion.
I'm not suggesting the status quo is acceptable or that MPS has room now to be complacent; rather, Flanders and other MPS critics should recognize that MPS, with MTEA and community support, have made some impressive strides so far this decade.
Third, using the New Orleans RSD as a model is kind of dumb. While it's true that New Orleans schools, based on comprehensive and careful research, have improved modestly since the rapid expansion of the RSD post-hurricane Katrina, that improvement came with three important things the OSPP plan supported by WILL and Flanders does not have. One is a significant figurative flood of investment following the literal floods. Funds came from all over the place: the federal government, the state and major philanthropies, including the Gates and Broad Foundations investing specifically in schools. Another is time; we're 10 years on, and no students remain in New Orleans schools whose achievement scores were reported pre-Katrina. Third-graders in 2004 have graduated, assuming they even stayed behind rather than move away from the city as tens of thousands did.
The last is increased funding. As I explained to Wisconsin State Sen. Alberta Darling recently, overall per-student spending in New Orleans, adjusted for inflation, is more than $2,000 higher per student than pre-Katrina; in some schools, that number is $5,000. At no point in the recent past has any non-Milwaukee legislator suggested making that kind of investment in MPS and, in fact, MPS has seen its per-student state aid reduced significantly over the same stretch of time that spending has increased in New Orleans.
To his credit, Flanders admits that "there have been pitfalls along the way" in implementing the New Orleans RSD – particularly in the way the first waves of private schools cherry-picked the best students to goose their stats. He also acknowledges that the original Milwaukee OSPP legislation contained no funding at all for start-up or implementation of any reform. And he seems to realize that post-Katrina New Orleans was a unique and un-replicable situation in education history.
Still, he asserts that something like the RSD will magically work here, even as he admits it has produced no measurably different results in Memphis. He completely ignores Detroit, where not only did a takeover district not improve schools, it actively made them worse.
Fourth, and finally, Flanders wants to apply this takeover or recovery-style methodology not merely to MPS, but also to "seven other districts, including Beloit, Racine, Menominee Indian and Bayfield." He does not, you'll notice, suggest any kind of takeover for failing private schools in Milwaukee, even when they are fully or almost fully funded by taxpayer dollars. If it's good for the goose, shouldn't it be good for the gander?
After the OSPP legislation was inserted, 11th hour-style, into the most recent state budget with zero public hearings and over the objection of every Milwaukee legislator, I noted that the provision's wording could pretty easily be applied to schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) program. If the voucher schools were considered a single public school district – 80 percent of all students in these schools attend using a taxpayer-funded voucher – it would be the state's second largest district and, like MPS, on the DPI's "fails to meet expectations" list.
Flanders wrote in previous installments of this series, rightly, that far more Milwaukee schools than just the traditional public ones have very low student achievement scores (when DPI finally does release report cards for the 2015-16 school year, voucher schools will have them for the first time ever and real apples-to-apples comparisons can be made). But every single one of WILL's proposed policy solutions further empowers the voucher system while weakening the public schools. This makes no sense. If WILL is truly committed to improving educational outcomes across all of Milwaukee, it should take at least an equally harsh stance against failures in the non-MPS K-12 sectors of this city.
It should also support the things we know work in urban schools: increased, more equitable funding, greater community services to boost the economic fortunes of students' families, and the kind of massive infusion of capital that did much of the work of improving the schools in New Orleans post-Katrina.
Instead, Flanders here proposes the equivalent of Vietnam-style carpet bombing of MPS, indiscriminately destroying the district in a misguided effort to save it.