A pandemic tipping point

A refusal by MPS and the teachers union to resume in-person classes is a boon to other schools

By MIKE NICHOLS | April 2021 | Analysis

MPS just got a whole lot closer to the tipping point. The number of children in classrooms directly controlled by the Milwaukee Public Schools union-dominated School Board has plummeted to approximately 63,000 from almost 100,000 as recently as 1990.

Back then, if you had children in Milwaukee, MPS was your only option and business leaders and reformers concerned about generations of kids unable to read or write had no choice but to try, somehow, to reform MPS.

No longer.

Today, over 52,000 Milwaukee kids attend private schools that accept vouchers or taxpayer-funded scholarships, public charter schools not run by MPS staff or suburban public schools offering open enrollment or the old Chapter 220 integration program. Nearly all of those schools remained largely open during the COVID-19 pandemic, while MPS kids were told to stay home.

The trajectories of the two groups of children will take decades to become fully apparent. But many of the MPS kids who have been locked out of classrooms for a year were already on the brink of losing any chance for stable, productive lives.

Only 16% of MPS third-graders were proficient in reading in the 2018-’19 school year. Only 13% of MPS eighthgraders were proficient in math. Students in the district — 80% of whom are economically disadvantaged, 90% of whom are minorities and a majority of whom are black — are now almost certain to fall further behind.

Mikel Holt, a Milwaukee journalist immersed in the education issue, says the black community that already has lost “generation after generation” of kids is in danger of losing much of this one to the pandemic and the reaction to it by the School Board. The last year, he says, has been “like the perfect storm to set black Americans back.”

The big picture

Parents upset that their children have lost a year of school now have a wide array of publicly funded school options and make choices for any number of reasons: academics, proximity, safety, a great principal or teacher, familiarity, emphasis on a particular program. Making sure parents have the information to make good choices has always been one of the challenges. Convincing struggling parents without means that they have the agency to alter the path of their children’s lives is another.

One prime impetus to flee: a self-interested teachers union that controls the board that kept schools closed for over a year. The board has been under the control of the union for over 20 years, and there is little chance that will change.

This spring, two self-described Democratic Socialists endorsed by the union lost, but the current board remains solidly under union control. The five returning incumbents include a former Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association president; a former member of the executive board of the MTEA who also has served on the board of the National Education Association; a former elementary school teacher who was also an MTEA representative; and two others previously endorsed by the MTEA. One of the new members is also a former teacher.

Other options

It’s been 30 years since reformers began pushing for the legislation that eventually allowed private schools to accept vouchers, that provided the opening for the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to create their own public charter schools and created the public school open enrollment program.

There are still significant battles to be fought for higher, more equitable funding for students using the voucher program or kids enrolled in charter schools, and reformers still have a long list of ways that schools outside of MPS are hamstrung.

But the progress has been astounding. There are more than 28,000 Milwaukee children in private schools that accept vouchers. Over 16,400 Milwaukee kids attend public schools in the city that do not use MPS staff. Almost 6,000 attend suburban public schools through open enrollment or the 45-year-old integration program known as Chapter 220.

There is still plenty of worry about whether the kids who are being left behind can get into a quality MPS school like Reagan or Rufus King International high schools. But the goal of reforming MPS has shifted — in a more granular, organic and uncoordinated way — to developing and expanding quality options elsewhere.

In Milwaukee, people are increasingly investing in or joining the boards of private schools that are able to accept vouchers or quality public charter schools that often have long waiting lists and can’t readily expand because they remain hamstrung by funding inequities.

The quality schools outside of MPS, St. Marcus, Milwaukee College Prep, the Notre Dame School of Milwaukee, the HOPE Christian Schools, the Hmong American Peace Academy and many others, have been godsends.

One respected voice who spent years in the middle of the battles paraphrased Voltaire by saying, “The world is crazy. I am going to tend to my garden. MPS is crazy. Better to tend to the small institutions that have promise. Better to tend to the kids.”

The tipping point

Students in publicly funded schools or programs outside of MPS may soon outnumber those left behind — and the trend is likely to accelerate.

Some think MPS will shrink over time but linger, especially if the federal government continues to prop it up with cash. Others wonder if the support will only enable the union-dominated board to retrench and, for example, further distance itself from charter schools that actually help the district financially.

As more parents and students flee, so goes the per-pupil support from Madison. Legacy costs like old buildings and employee benefit obligations will eat up an increasing percentage of the dwindling revenue.

It’s been 12 years since anyone seriously proposed fundamentally altering MPS. In 2009, then-Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) pushed legislation that would have given Barrett the ability to appoint a district superintendent with control over the budget and tax levy.

Opponents, including many Milwaukee Democrats with the most direct interest in the issue, killed the reform and — although there has been talk from time to time since then about splitting up the district — the status quo has prevailed.

Opposition to changing control or abolishing the district might not be as stiff next time around. A governor not as cozy with the unions would help. But so could the experiences of other cities that have reformed their failing districts in recent years.

New Orleans not long ago became the first major American city without any traditional schools. Every public school in that city is now a charter school, the result of state intervention following Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago. Sixteen years hence, we may look back and see that the pandemic was the same sort of impetus in Milwaukee schools that the hurricane was in New Orleans.

The question isn’t really when the tipping point here will occur. It’s whether it already has.

Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

top