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Sponsored by suburban Republicans Rep. Dale Kooyega and Sen. Alberta Darling, it is full of bad ideas and presents a possible future for MPS that is bleaker than you can possibly imagine. It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start at the beginning.
In January, Kooyenga and Darling released a shiny booklet (pdf) about their plan, called “New Opportunities for Milwaukee.” The book opened with an outright lie, claiming in its opening paragraph that the “War on Poverty” launched by President Johnson in 1964 resulted in “little, if any, progress,” in their words.
A careful study by Columbia University released last year showed that government progams, even though they are constantly under attack by Kooyenga and Darling’s Republican colleagues, “are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%).” They’re just wrong, and it’s hard to take seriously any plan that is premised on a falsehood that bold.
The “new opportunities” that followed in their book represented not opportunities for Milwaukeeans, but rather opportunities for private charter school organizations, anti-union out-of-state corporations, and interior designers. (You think I am joking; I am not.)
So now the suburban pair is circulating a set of “talking points” before releasing the full bill that would implement their schools plan, and it, too, begins with a lie. They write, “The consequences of these failing schools are a significant factor in contributing to Milwaukee’s declining economic and social health.”
It may be difficult to quantitatively measure whatever it is they call the city’s “social health,” and it’s probably equally difficult to prove or disprove the causal relationship between our public schools—several of which are consistently rated among the best in the state—and any specific economic measures. In fact, the research usually suggests that it’s neighborhood quality that has a long-term effect on school achievement, not school achievement affecting neighborhood quality.
But there are pretty clear data out there on Milwaukee’s economy, and it is not, in fact, “declining.” While this city is far from perfect—no one is making that argument, and this city has repeatedly been singled out as among the nation’s worst for African Americans, something city legislators have been talking about for years—the city of Milwaukee is in a period of growth and revitalization.
Milwaukee is growing in population—indeed, downtown, the Third Ward, and Bay View are booming—and in employment, with a recent City Observatory report noting that Milwaukee’s jobs grew faster than those of its suburbs. The city is reclaiming its dead housing stock and revitalizing many neighborhoods in all parts of the city. Private and public investments in infrastructure and construction are literally remaking vast swaths of the city, from Century City to the Menominee Valley to the lakefront.
So, twice the Kooyenga-Darling duo have introduced their plans with questionable, if not completely bogus, premises. It should come as no surprise, then, that the bill itself is full of questionable, if not completely bogus, solutions to the problems facing Milwaukee’s failing schools.
For one, the plan places authority over these schools, dubbed “opportunity schools,” in a single commissioner, appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Theoretically, Abele could provide some oversight of that person, and to a certain extent that commissioner will have to follow state and federal laws.
But unlike in MPS, there is no democratically-elected governance board; the proposal does not allow the elected Milwaukee County Board any oversight, despite putting the commissioner directly under the county executive (who is elected only once every four years; there are school board—and county board—elections every two years). All power to evaluate and close failing MPS schools lies with this one individual, as does the power to authorize, fund, and monitor the success or failure of these new opportunity schools.
Let me repeat part of that again: A single, unelected, unknown “commissioner” will absolutely have the authority to close public schools operated by the democratically-elected Milwaukee Board of School Directors, confiscate the buildings, material, and students (maybe? see below) within those schools, and turn them over to private, possibly religious, possibly for-profit operators.
The proposal suggests in at least two ways that the problem with failing schools is teachers, though thinking only about teachers is stupidly reductive. Any staff in the schools selected to be closed and handed off can reapply for their jobs, but they have to sign a contract that they will not seek representation by a union. Teachers unions, of course, had their authority gutted by 2011’s Act 10, so I am unsure why Kooyenga and Darling fear unions in their “opportunity schools.”
They also seem to fear fully licensed teachers. The plan allows the commissioner to grant licenses to whoever wants one to teach in these schools. Let’s be clear: the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction makes no provision for such a thing to happen. The federal law governing schools makes no provision for such a thing to happen.
There are well-established emergency licenses and even alternative certification programs available, sure. But this power, residing in a single individual with, potentially, no expertise or qualification in education, to unilaterally grant licenses to any random person is unprecedented. A quick googling turns up no other program anywhere in the country—even in the “recovery zones” in New Orleans or Detroit on which this program is modeled—that allows a commissioner like this one to license teachers on his own.
And, really, does anyone believe that the problem in these schools is that the teachers there are licensed and represented by the union? If that is the problem, then why are the top schools in the state full of licensed, qualified teachers? Would Kooyenga and Darling have the nerve to walk into MPS’s Reagan or Fernwood Montessori, or for that matter, Brookfield East or Maple Dale in their home districts, and demand they discharge all the licensed teachers in their employ? Of course not.
The plan also makes no mention of students. At this moment, there are five different education sectors in Milwaukee. Students can and do move freely within and among those sectors. The failing students—for, after all, when we talk about failing schools we’re talking about students with poor outcomes in those schools—from the schools targeted for closure by this commissioner are not, as far as I can tell, required to remain in those schools. If I were a cynical man, I’d worry that without safeguards, the operators of these schools, once they’re converted to “opportunity schools,” will summarily remove students who misbehave or create other challenges, filling empty seats with highly motivated students instead of actually dealing with the problems among Milwaukee’s hardest-to-teach students.
Brother Bob Smith, former longtime leader of the Messmer schools in the city’s voucher program, used to say, famously, “Make the right decisions, or make them somewhere else.” Students who cannot be served by choice schools, because of disabilities, for example, must be taken in by MPS. And we know from years of research that voucher schools churn tremendously. The last study found that fully 75% of students who started ninth grade in a voucher school dropped out of the program before graduation. Many city charters, too, suffer from high student turnover or expulsions.
While I’m sure most educators in all sectors—and I’ve met a lot of them!—are in this business for the kids, the data are undeniable: Milwaukee’s children switch schools far too often, and leave the non-MPS sector schools at an alarming rate.
And now Kooyenga and Darling want to hand public school buildings over to these voucher sector and the charter sector, operators who will have no attachment to the students, parents, or communities in and around those schools, and who will seek the easiest path to high scores—enrolling only the best students.
The Milwaukee Public Schools has no ability to pick choose, to tell students to make their decisions somewhere else. Students who leave voucher schools, charter schools, and, soon, these “opportunity schools,” by choice or by force, will be taken in by MPS.
The logical end of this plan, then, which carves out five schools a year from the public district, is that MPS will have only those students whom other sectors will not teach, cannot teach, refuse to teach. As more and more public schools are handed over to a one-man “opportunity schools” commissioner, and as the budget for the public schools shrinks to nothing and the cost of educating special needs students rises, bankruptcy is inevitable. The district is already supporting retirees from when it enrolled 100,000 students or more; when it enrolls half that, or less, it will simply be unsustainable.
And then what will be the “opportunity” for those students only MPS will teach?
Answer that, Kooyenga and Darling.
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