Remember That Time Abele Said He Wasn’t Going To Take Over MPS Schools?

Many of our local readers are probably aware of the history behind the state-mandated Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program – or OSPP. Essentially the state has required the county executive to take over 3 underperforming Milwaukee Public Schools per year and hand them over to private operators. The county executive also needs to provide a commissioner and board to oversee these schools and select the operators. And of course the state has provided no funding for these schools nor for the commissioner position. The money is to come from the normal state support for charter and voucher schools.

So last fall, County Executive Chris Abele enlisted Dr. Desmond Means as his commissioner. Dr. Means is currently the Superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District, one of the highest performing school districts in the state.

At the time Dr Means and Exec. Abele proposed a high performance kindergarten program and providing additional support and advice for underperforming MPS schools. This was wrapped around a promise to not actually take control of any schools. Such a takeover is opposed by the MPS Board and the MTEA of course.

But State Senator Alberta Darling, one of the key authors of the bill authorizing the takeover, predicted that Exec. Abele’s view on taking over schools would change after he was re-elected county executive.

Guess what?

Editor’s Note: the official term for Dr. Means position in the state law is commissioner. So I changed my usage of superintendent to commissioner.

MPS Cancels Foreign Travel For Students.

Travel alerts from the US State Department have caused the Milwaukee Public Schools to cancel any foreign travel for school students. Specifically the warnings urged people to avoid large crowds…which of course would be at sites that would attract student tourists. Well here’s the rationale:

MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia said Tuesday that the ban affects a half-dozen student trips. The destinations of planned trips include Denmark, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Canada.

He said the district was moved to cancel the trips because the State Department alert specifically urged travelers to avoid large crowds.

“When you look at these student trips, they inherently involve going to places where there are large crowds — museums, houses of government,” he said. “It was really difficult to imagine how you would put together a trip like that within the confines of the alert.”

MPS also will evaluate out-of-state trips on a case-by-case basis and has banned all trips to Washington, D.C., through the end of the year. However, none had been scheduled, Tagliavia said.

Don’t look now but most school buildings attract large crowds of people on an almost daily basis…and based on the history of mass shootings in the liberally armed United States…my feelings say you have a higher risk of being shot in an American school than in the Louvre or Westminster Abbey…

P.S. Recently an Australian member of Parliament suggested that they issue a travel advisory about violence in the United States…and he wasn’t kidding all that much.

This popped up on JSOnline while I was working out this post:

A Milwaukee lawmaker is blasting Milwaukee Public Schools for canceling all planned international trips over security concerns, saying the move only emboldens terrorists and suggesting that students face greater risks in some neighborhoods of the city.

“Did MPS ban travel to NYC or major American cities after September Il?” state Rep. Josh Zepnick asked board members in a letter dated Wednesday. (It did, according to the district.)

“Has MPS ever banned student activities in Milwaukee neighborhoods plagued by gun violence and other illegal street activity?”

Kooyenga and Darling’s plan to kill the Milwaukee Public Schools

It’s out there now, the Republican plan (pdf) to start peeling off Milwaukee Public Schools and handing them over to private operators. And it’s awful.

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.

Republicans propose bill giving Milwaukee County Exec authority to usurp MPS (UPDATED)

Earlier today it was reported Republican State Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Republican State Sen. Alberta Darling are working on a proposal that would allow the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a commissioner accountable to no one but the County Executive who could usurp the Milwaukee Public Schools district to take over up to five struggling MPS schools per year.

Notably, the plan being floated by Rep. Kooyenga and Sen. Darling would allow that commissioner to hire teachers without state licenses to work in the schools being taken over, and those teachers would not be able to join unions.

The Milwaukee County executive would oversee the turnover of up to five struggling Milwaukee Public Schools per year to operators of public charter or private voucher schools with better records of success, according to details of a proposal that two suburban Republican lawmakers have been working on for months.

Under the proposal, County Executive Chris Abele would name a commissioner who would have parallel authority to Milwaukee Public Schools but have broad freedom from rules, save for laws regarding health and safety, non-discrimination and special education services, according to the proposal.

Staff at the public schools run by new operators would have to re-apply for their jobs and, if hired, would waive their right to be represented by a union. The plan suggests that staff would not have to have state teaching licenses, but would get a special license to teach in schools under the authority of the commissioner. Staff would have to pass criminal background checks.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (Brookfield) emailed details of their proposal, named the “Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program,” to private and charter school leaders, as well as Milwaukee Public Schools, late last week for feedback.

Curiously absent from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s report on this proposal was any comment from current County Executive Chris Abele, leaving me to wonder where he stands on the proposal.

Giving the County Executive – who is no expert on public education and likely never attended a public school in his life – the ability to appoint an unelected commissioner to usurp the elected School Board is a terrible idea. Then again, Sen. Darling is just full of terrible ideas – after all, it was her idea to semi-privatize the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare in order to “fix” Milwaukee County’s child welfare system, and we can all see how terribly that idea worked out.

UPDATE: Since my initial report, County Executive Chris Abele has released a statement expressing his support for the plan that would give him the ability to usurp Milwaukee Public Schools and its elected board.

“Providing the best K-12 education system for the community should be a priority for everyone who lives in Milwaukee. For the past 20 years, it has been a priority of mine as I have been actively involved in a variety of education policy efforts in Milwaukee. I have worked with every MPS Superintendent going back to Superintendent Andrekopoulos, I helped the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, on whose board I still sit, in partnering with over 35 MPS schools, I assisted in crafting the successful Race To The Top grant proposal that MPS was awarded, and I continue to be involved in Schools That Can Milwaukee, an organization that seeks to ensure that 20,000 Milwaukee students attend high-quality urban schools by 2020.

“In all of these efforts, my goal has always been the best quality education for as many kids and their families as possible, delivered in the fairest, most sustainable way possible. While this legislation is not something I sought, when I was recently approached by Rep. Kooyenga and Sen. Darling asking if I would be the appointing authority, I told them that it was hard to have an opinion absent all of the details. But IF the bill passed that way, it’s a responsibility that I would accept and take very seriously.

“Proponents of this legislation should know the following: I like and respect MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver and would want to work very closely with her; I remain very concerned about the funding flaw that the current voucher system continues to create for MPS; and I believe public money should be directed to open admission schools, not selective admission schools.

“If placed in this position, I’m committed to work hard to take this proposal and ensure that its implementation is as successful as it can possibly be. The families in Milwaukee deserve no less.”

Oh look….Alberta Darling has another “bright” idea involving privatization of public services!

The last time Republican State Senator Alberta Darling had a bright idea to have the state of Wisconsin step in an take control of something in Milwaukee County, citizens ended up with the mess that is the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. However, her history of abject failure doesn’t seem to be stopping Sen. Darling from moving ahead with a plan in which the state would hand over Milwaukee Public Schools to private entities.

Aides for state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) acknowledge the suburban Milwaukee lawmaker has been talking to stakeholders about the idea of a recovery or state-run district, but there are no definite plans yet.

Just in case, members of the Milwaukee teachers union have been readying a defensive strategy. Under an effort called “Stop the Takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools,” a petition on the site has more than 500 signatures of individuals opposed to the idea of allowing “third-party operators” to run what they call “a takeover zone” of public schools in Milwaukee.

Many union members are opposed to the idea of allowing city schools to be overseen by anyone other than the administration and the publicly elected Milwaukee School Board. They say it would open the door for privatization of schools if charter school management companies take over.

To read more about Sen. Alberta Darling’s school “recovery zones,” check out Wisconsin Soapbox’s excellent piece.

When MPS Government Bureaucrats Attack The First Amendment


I’m a parent of a Milwaukee Public School child.  This is a choice that I made because I believe in the city of Milwaukee and I believe in public education.  This year, I am also an officer at my school’s PTA.  For those who aren’t familiar with how a PTA works, they are an advocacy group for children.  They’re traditionally established at a school, but they’re an outside organization, just like a scouting troupe or other organization that meets in a school.  They are typically registered as a 501(c)3 tax exempt entity.  They provide programming for children and families, and function under their bylaws, which are recognized by the school.

A public school is a government unit filled with government employees and overseen by a number of standards–but most policy decisions come from the elected School Board.

In the mid 1990s, the School Board passed a policy regarding fundraising of outside parent groups, Administrative Policy 7.22.  The policy is very vague, and there are multiple interpretations of how it should be applied, and different school principals have read it in different ways.  (Also, keep in mind, it wasn’t until this year that some bureaucrat decided this policy needed to be enforced.)  In some schools, the principal is saying it limits parent groups to 2 fundraisers per school year.


This policy raises two important Constitutional issues:  Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association.

The PTA is an outside association.  Its own policies frown upon using children as entrepreneurs–which would seem to be the intent of the policy.  But if a parent group sells hotdogs at an open house, and sells t-shirts with school logos on it, even though no child is doing anything–the school will count that as two fundraisers and prohibit any further fundraising.  So, if I wanted to have a restaurant night fundraiser (where typically they donate a percentage of the receipts to the PTA), even if I don’t use any school resources, it would violate the policy.  The new enforcement of this policy by the district could cut some PTA budgets by 75%–severely impacting their ability to get their message out, while at the same time interfering in the legal activities of a private association.

It is very clear that the solution is the the School Board to address this policy and ensure that the policy does not run afoul of the first amendment.  Protecting children from having to do fundraising is a worthwhile goal, but the current enforcement of the policy is harmful to children.  It shows disregard for our laws, and it inhibits the parents from doing their job as part of an advocacy organization.  In a district that already has so many budgetary shortfalls, it is absurd to push a policy that takes away resources from an organization that funds student activities, scholarships, and is the front line in one of the pro-ported goals of the district–getting parents and families involved with education.


Let’s Have a Moratorium On Voucher Schools

During a talk to the community of St. Anthony’s School on Milwaukee’s south side, Governor Walker said he was interested in expanding Wisconsin’s school voucher program beyond the Milwaukee and Racine areas. The governor of course was preaching to the choir since St. Anthony’s is the largest voucher school participant in the Milwaukee area with more than 1,000 students using vouchers.

Whether you support voucher schools or oppose them as I do, you have to admit that the success of voucher school programs is highly in doubt. Reports on student achievement often shows few voucher schools exceed the public schools that they meant to compete with. And they are not held accountable to the same standards that public schools are.

My suggestion is a moratorium on future voucher schools until they are held as fully accountable for student achievement and teacher competency at the same levels as our public schools. And more importantly, stop expanding the program until we know that they are at least as successful at educating our young people as the existing school systems. Stop shortchanging public education if you don’t actually have a better product!

Shameless Self-Promotion

I haven’t been posting here lately because I plowed myself into a long and involved writing project at SchoolMattersMKE, the group blog focusing on education and schools in the Milwaukee area.

To make a long story short–and it is a long story, about 6,000 words all told–there is a class of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools whose achievement is invisible.  Worse, when you try to make the invisible visible, it becomes clear that these students’ achievement is abysmally low, far lower than the already low scores you find among a lot of MPS students.

So in a three-part series, I look at just how badly those students do, what some possible implications may be, and what some specific suggestions are to change the situation.  I hope you’re willing to check it out, and pass it on to anyone you know who is interested in MPS and might have influence over policy.

Jess Ripp: More government is the answer to the problems within MPS!

In a recent interview with Patti Wenzel of Third Coast Digest, far-right Republican State Senate candidate Jess Ripp, who’s facing off against Chris Larson here in the 7th State Senate District, said he agrees with Scott Walker’s plan to break the Milwaukee Public School system into smaller districts. You’ll remember Walker’s plan for breaking up MPS involved dividing MPS into ten to twelve autonomous districts with the goal of increasing accountability. Ripp also added breaking MPS into smaller school districts would, “spread the responsibility for education to more people.”

There’s absolutely no doubt the responsibility for education would be spread to more people if MPS were broken up into ten to twelve autonomous school districts, as each of those ten to twelve autonomous school districts would need their own autonomous school boards, not to mention district administrators, including superintendents. If each of the ten to twelve new school districts had a seven person school board, Walker’s plan would create 70 to 84 new elected school board members, not to mention dozens of new administrators, which would certainly increase the size of government. Considering how closely Ripp has aligned himself with Scott Walker, I can only assume Ripp is a small government conservative, so it seems odd that he supports a plan that would actually increase the size of government, at least when it comes to the school board.

Snow day randomness

Just a few random thoughts on this snowy/rainy/downright ugly day:

  • The weather out there is nasty, so if you’re out and about, be careful. As the day gets colder, things are going to freeze up and get even nastier, so try to stay home and enjoy a good book (or a good blog) if you can.
  • By a 5-0 vote, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors Committee on Innovation/School Reformpassed the communicable disease prevention program, which would allow for the limited distribution of male condoms in many of the city’s public high schools. The proposal will now will go to the full board for final consideration. Personally, I think this is a good idea, because it’s clear to anyone with half a brain that while we might want all our teenagers to be abstinent from sexual activity, it’s simply not realistic.
  • Tom Haudricourt of theMilwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting the Brewers hot and heavy for left handed starting pitcher Randy Wolf, who had a solid season last year as a member of the starting rotation for the Los Angeles Dodgers. By my estimation Wolf is a solid starting pitcher (and he’s lefthanded, which is surely a bonus), but I can’t help but wonder if his numbers were helped by the fact that he played in Chavez Ravine, which is widely considered a pitchers’ ballpark. At any rate, Wolf would probably be an improvement over the motley crew of starting pitchers the Brewers have at this point in the offseason, so hopefully they’ll get him signed.
  • Over at “Real Debate” Wisconsin, Fred Dooley has his undies in a bunch over nasty comments supposedly made by liberal readers of his blog, while conveniently ignoring the fact that some of his conservative commenters aren’t immune from vitriolic comments. Apparently, Fred Dooley is a big fan of selective outrage, but I’m willing to bet the “comments from the left” that were so outrageous to Fred didn’t come from the sources he thinks. After all, it’s not very difficult to post as someone else, as we all learned after the Badger Blogger debacle.