MPS needs an overhaul; Milwaukee kids deserve better

By SHANNON WHITWORTH | Feb. 18, 2015

A few days ago, I saw something I thought I’d never see. I was at a private voucher school in Milwaukee’s inner city watching an assembly where faculty members were getting a couple hundred small children fired up for upcoming progress testing. The woman at the microphone asked the kids -- most of whom were black -- how many had reached their homework goals for the week. Ninety-five percent of them confidently shot their hands in the air. As one who believes in education as a vehicle to success and happiness, I was almost brought to tears.

These children can learn. These children want to learn. They need only for adults to provide the proper environment for them to do so.

In contrast, on the whole, the Milwaukee Public Schools system is failing our children in the inner city. This is not an indictment of any particular school or teacher. The system is performing so poorly that major changes, not just tweaks, are needed.

Since 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has provided taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for city children to attend private schools. Even decades after the program began, opponents wrongly continue to challenge it. In December, U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore unnecessarily requested a federal review of the Milwaukee program.

Choice proponents still have work to do. The long waiting lists at good schools leave some families vulnerable to bad schools. Those bad schools must be defunded and shut down. Without an aggressive effort to combat those who would profit off vulnerable children, we simply substitute one form of chaos for another and reinforce the impression that, at the end of the day, we really don’t give a damn. That impression makes the choice program harder to implement and less apt to gain the widespread support that it deserves.

The fact is that while not perfect, the voucher program supports some of the best schools in the city, puts pressure on MPS to reform and does it for far less money than MPS. In 2012-’13, the per-pupil taxpayer cost to educate a child in MPS was $13,441; it was a maximum $6,442 in the voucher program.

We spend more per student in MPS than do the vast majority of major public school districts in the country. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported that in 2009-’10, MPS spent more money per student than all but three major public school districts in the country. Yet the return on that investment has been generations of poorly educated, low-skilled, minority kids and a system that continually demands more resources (lest ye be considered a lowbrow, racist child-hater). The problem at MPS is not underfunding.

So, we spend more on public schools in Milwaukee than almost every other city, in a country that spends more than almost every other country. And what are the results? Certainly, not every school is a disaster, but far more than any intellectually honest person who gives a damn will tolerate: According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, there were 78,516 students enrolled in MPS last year in 134 schools that are graded under the standard rating system. Of those children, 31,595 students were in 55 schools that “failed to meet expectations,” according to DPI. That’s 41% of the students. Another 23,954 children were in 49 schools that “meet few expectations.” That’s another 30%. All told, that’s 55,549 students -- a whopping 71% -- enrolled in 104 MPS schools that either fail to meet or meet very few of the goals necessary to educate children.

How can we, as people of good conscience in Wisconsin, continue to prop up a system that sets up seven in 10 children to fail in life?

There are some people outside of Milwaukee who believe that the problem of the public schools in Milwaukee is just that -- Milwaukee’s problem. They are wrong. Think of Wisconsin as a big mall with Milwaukee as the hub store. People can shop at the small stores all they want, but if the hub dies, the mall dies. In the same way, the future of this state is tied to the future of its largest city. Like it or not, these children are our children.

By the same token, people in the inner city have to understand that the people out in the ’burbs really do care about Milwaukee children. As much as they’ve been told it’s “us vs. them,” this is not about Whitey coming into their neighborhood and trying to run everything because he’s on a power trip. It’s evident that an overhaul is necessary to get this education system back on track, and there aren’t enough people within that system who will do what is necessary to reform it.

According to the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Full Salary Database of MPS, 137 administrators had salaries over $100,000 last year. Common sense tells you that a school system that has scores of administrators making six figures while teachers have to buy basic classroom supplies out of their own pockets is flat-out broken. 

So what can be done? I posit that if you’ve spent the last few decades doing it your way and have failed, you are disqualified from having input going forward. There are too many powerful people invested in maintaining the status quo. An overhaul is long past due.

Of one thing I am convinced: Milwaukee children can learn and want to learn. The reason they are not learning is adults are failing them. The question is whether we will allow this to continue. Wisconsin’s future will depend on the answer.

Shannon Whitworth is a Wisconsin attorney. This column represents his personal opinion.