Michael Bonds, President
Milwaukee Board of School Directors
A plan recently announced by State Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Dale Kooyenga to create a so-called “turnaround district” from some of Milwaukee Public Schools’ lowest performing schools is seriously flawed.
The plan will do little to improve student achievement because it doesn’t focus on improving outcomes.
The plan could also cause significant financial distress to MPS, potentially setting up a scenario similar to what’s taking place in Michigan, where school districts around the state could pay for the debt of Detroit Public Schools, which experienced a state takeover several years ago.
First, let’s consider the details of the Darling/Kooyenga plan.
The plan calls for changing the governance – who runs the school – with no details on how this plan will improve student achievement. It seems to focus only on closing public schools and reopening them as private or charter schools instead of focusing on improving achievement and the challenges students face.
Under this plan, the Milwaukee County Executive would appoint a commissioner to oversee, initially, up to three MPS schools.
The commissioner could then run the schools or appoint voucher or charter operators to take on the day-to-day operation of the schools.
Up to five additional schools could be selected each year.
There are a number of problems with this approach. It provides indefinite oversight to a non-educator, the Milwaukee County Executive, at a time when Milwaukee County is facing significant problems of its own. A Public Policy Forum report indicated MPS is in better financial condition than Milwaukee County.
It also removes decision-making from the democratically-elected school board and MPS Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver, who was just appointed superintendent October 1, 2014.
Secondly, the plan sets no standards for academic achievement and has no measures for improving outcomes.
There is no accountability. The vouchers or charters that might run these schools do not have to demonstrate a track record of success.
The Darling/Kooyenga effort also focuses solely on MPS as opposed to including schools across all sectors in the City of Milwaukee that need to improve student achievement. A December 2014 Public Policy Forum report found that the schools with the lowest performance in Milwaukee are voucher schools, not MPS.
So-called “turnaround districts” are not new, but they have failed to show they significantly improve academic performance.
The oldest such district is in New Orleans where nearly every school was taken over by charters after Hurricane Katrina.
However, a group of experts from New Orleans who visited Milwaukee in March stated that only four schools actually perform above state average.
Finally, this plan puts the significant fiscal improvement MPS has made over the last four years in jeopardy.
The Milwaukee Board of School Directors had made tough decisions and reduced the financial liability for unfunded post-employment retirement benefits by 70 percent. However, $1.4 billion in liability remains.
The board continues to pay that amount down. But if fewer students are in MPS because they’ve been taken over by the state, continuing to pay down debt becomes virtually impossible.
In Detroit, a state takeover of schools could prove to be a financial disaster for taxpayers statewide.
The state is now recommending what amounts to a bailout of the Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which totals $458 million. That bailout will be paid for by the rest of the state with school districts receiving $50 less per pupil.
There’s still time to contact your legislator. Call the Wisconsin Legislative Hotline at 1-800-362-9472. Let your legislator know the Darling/Kooyenga plan is wrong for MPS and wrong for Milwaukee.