With $800 million at stake, it’s time to finally dismantle the School Board and give control to a reform-minded leader
By JAY MILLER | August 31, 2021
Memo to state legislators: We are at the start of another school year, and Milwaukee Public Schools continues to founder. It is of the utmost urgency that you do two things. 1) Dismantle the Milwaukee School Board, which continues to be in thrall to the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and is receiving $800 million in additional federal dollars. And 2) Put the district in the hands of a proven educational leader free to implement real reform.
“Where’s the outrage?” Alan Borsuk, longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter and columnist, asked more than three years ago in response to the abysmal educational outcomes for Blacks in Wisconsin and Milwaukee in particular. John Schlifske, CEO and president of Northwestern Mutual, recently echoed the sentiment. (Disclaimer: I worked at Northwestern Mutual for 20 years and retired from there.)
Not much has changed in three years. Not much has changed in 40 years. Therein lies the problem.
Black children bear the brunt of educational disparity in our state, as well as in others. Yet, despite facing the same or similar challenges, Black students in many charter and voucher schools do far better than those in MPS, as Schlifske has pointed out.
The reason is simple. Charter and voucher schools track the outcomes of their students and make changes where needed in the system to improve those outcomes. MPS doesn’t even pay lip service to outcomes.
There’s no reason to because nothing changes with MPS — except getting more money. And, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Fund, MPS is expecting an additional $800 million, to be spent over the next three years, on top of MPS’ current $1.3 billion budget proposal. And this, despite a precipitous decline in enrollment at traditional MPS schools over the past 30 years.
Who will make the critical decisions about how to direct such vast sums of money? Why, the nine-member Milwaukee School Board, of course, a body elected by a relatively small number of voters in low-turnout spring elections.
Those who vote almost certainly don’t represent a cross-section of parents and other members of the community. More likely, they disproportionately represent those who are active in MTEA and their families.
The result is evident. Most School Board members either worked for and/or were endorsed by the MTEA.
And what does the union want the School Board to do with all this largesse? Pay teachers more and enrich their retirement fund. While good teachers deserve to be paid more, bad teachers should be replaced. But that is never part of the bargain.
The School Board is holding “listening sessions” to hear from the public about how to spend the windfall, but it’s pretty clear to whom the board is listening.
The board continues to see charter and voucher schools, especially the successful ones, as the enemy because their teachers are not unionized. Witness the shabby treatment of Milwaukee Excellence and Milwaukee College Prep charter schools. As the principal of Milwaukee Excellence said, “It is getting harder to love a district that doesn’t love you back.”
So far, none of the federal windfall has been dedicated to where it should be spent — improving reading, writing, math, science and other core academic skills. Although MPS may say some nice things to assuage parents and the public, the worry is that there’s no there there.
State legislators representing Milwaukee ought to be among the most vocal advocates for inner city children. Except for one or two, however, they seem to care only for campaign contributions from the MTEA.
The Journal Sentinel, which prides itself on advocacy journalism and devotes pages to topics that kindle its wrath, raises hardly a peep about arguably the single biggest issue plaguing Milwaukee.
It’s not alone. Other than Schlifske, business leaders have been reticent on the subject, which is particularly ironic because the fewer educated and equipped graduates coming out of MPS, the less viable the city’s workforce. Any clarion call from the Milwaukee Business Journal? I haven’t seen it.
The idea that poor children of color can’t learn is infuriating and condescending. It might not be possible to entirely bridge the learning gap between the children from affluent communities and those stuck in poor neighborhoods riddled with crime. Certainly, however, outcomes can be dramatically improved. Successful public, charter and voucher schools prove what is possible.
With $800 million at stake, it is imperative that control of MPS be wrested from the School Board and MTEA, and placed in the hands of transformative leadership. Borsuk once called for the creation of an education czar. Similarly, former Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett pleaded with the Legislature to put the mayor in charge.
Something should have happened a long time ago. But it didn’t, and now there is all of this extra money to consider. Misspending it would be a tragedy.
The Legislature has a duty to all of this state’s children, especially those in places like the inner city of Milwaukee, to make sure every penny is spent with a singular motivation: high-quality education.
Jay Miller of Whitefish Bay is a tax attorney and a visiting fellow at the Badger Institute. This column represents his personal opinion.