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Target: MPS

Will reform come from insiders or outsiders?

Apr. 22, 2009
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Is this the beginning of the end of the Milwaukee Public Schools?

Yes, if you believe the hype promoted by the suburban business community, their representatives in the state Legislature, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who argue that MPS is so dysfunctional and wasteful that it can’t save itself. State Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) even introduced a bill that would break up the district, while the idea of abolishing the MPS board of directors and replacing it with an appointed panel has been floated as the solution to MPS’s so-called “dysfunction.”

On the other hand, those who are fighting to reform MPS from within argue that more resources for public school students—and a reduced burden for property taxpayers in Milwaukee who pay extra for the $130 million voucher school system—will help MPS increase student achievement and graduation rates. They point out that the real issue for MPS is that a significant number of its student population comes from economically disadvantaged families.

While the two sides of the debate have been hashed over for a while, the fate of MPS has taken on a new urgency. Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, two Democrats, are using a privately funded audit by consultants McKinsey & Co. to begin chipping away at the authority of the democratically elected MPS board of directors. They aren’t proposing a full takeover of the board, but they want direct oversight of it.

The McKinsey audit—said to cost more than $1 million—claims that MPS faces a potentially serious annual shortfall in five years, and the district could save $42 million to $100 million a year by renegotiating employee benefits, centralizing purchases, decreasing work hours so that some employees qualify for BadgerCare and serving prepackaged box lunches to students.

The audit turned up no fraud, mismanagement or cooked books. Most importantly, it found that MPS’s spending per pupil is in line with comparable school districts.

It did find, however, that MPS’s biggest financial challenges are caused by declining enrollments due to the voucher program and the high cost of health care benefits (health care costs in southeast Wisconsin are much higher than the national average)—challenges that are not controlled by the MPS board.

Advisory Council to the Rescue?

Barrett, Doyle and outgoing state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster are in the process of appointing an MPS Innovation and Improvement Advisory Council, which would oversee MPS reforms, including some of the McKinsey recommendations.

In an interview on Monday, Barrett was vague about the composition of the advisory council, its duties and its powers, saying he and the governor and their aides would work out the details this week.

When pressed, Barrett said it was his “intention” to only appoint Milwaukee residents to the council, and his “intention” to only appoint advisers who do not have a financial stake in MPS “reforms”—say, voucher, charter or private school advocates.

He said that he has not set up a meeting with the MPS board of directors, but he hoped that the council and the board would work together. The only MPS board member who has spoken to the mayor is Michael Bonds, who is the financial watchdog on the board.

But the advisory council won’t just work to reform MPS, Barrett said. The mayor wants the council to chase after “Race to the Top” funds that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will distribute at his discretion. Duncan’s fund is separate from the $250 million in federal stimulus funds that will flow to MPS shortly. About $4.3 billion of the $5 billion “Race to the Top” funds will be divided among select states and districts that can show that they’re trying to implement innovative educational reforms.

“It’s not a slam-dunk that Milwaukee or Wisconsin would be among them,” Barrett said.

Results at the Ballot Box

Doyle and Barrett waited until just days after the April 7 election to release the audit and announce their plans to reform MPS.

But the notion of an appointed MPS board and educational reform were debated throughout the campaign—and the candidates most in synch with Doyle and Barrett’s ideas were defeated at the ballot box.

Most striking was the difference between the candidates for state superintendent of public instruction. Burmaster’s deputy, Tony Evers, wasn’t convinced that an appointed board would be the answer to MPS’s problems, and advocated for more instructional support for MPS. His rival, Rose Fernandez, pushed statewide privatization and an appointed “turnaround team” for MPS.

Evers trounced Fernandez with 60% of the vote.

MPS Board President Peter Blewett, who has taken the brunt of conservatives’ criticisms because of his public school advocacy, faced ReDonna Rodgers, who was backed by the same conservative suburbanites who support vouchers and an appointed board: the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, the Bradley Foundation’s Michael Grebe, and a host of voucher and private school backers.

Blewett won in a landslide with 62% of the vote.

More interestingly, a pro-voucher “reformer” on the MPS board, Bruce Thompson, founded Advocates for Student Achievement (ASA) to recruit and train candidates for the MPS board. One candidate was Blewett’s defeated opponent, ReDonna Rodgers. But two candidates— Annie Woodward and David Voeltner— won their elections.

However, ASA is under investigation by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, which subpoenaed ASA’s bank records a week before the election. The good-government group Citizen Action of Wisconsin filed a complaint alleging that ASA was making illegal contributions to the candidates, who were not reporting them properly. Internal ASA e-mails made public show that the group was extensively involved in the three candidates’ campaigns, involvement that may be illegal.

Barrett wouldn’t comment on ASA’s involvement in the election, saying that it was outside the scope of the Shepherd’s interview request.

But it’s worth noting that those who routinely label MPS “dysfunctional” are the same ones who lost at the ballot box or were the main supporters of a group that’s under investigation for trying to subvert an election. Meanwhile, the Journal Sentinel continues to bury the ASA story; its lead education reporter trumpets MPS’s “wasteful spending” on employee benefits, fresh food and classroom supplies; and its editorial page advocates for more outside intervention in the district’s future.

Blewett said the Journal Sentinel’s push for an advisory council is just the latest in a long string of costly reform efforts the paper has backed in the past—the Neighborhood Schools Initiative, the voucher program and decentralization.

“This is just a distraction,” Blewett said.


Reforming the Voucher Program

Tangled up in MPS’s future is the fate of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), commonly known as the voucher program.

While Doyle is asking for more accountability in the voucher program (see sidebars “Are Voucher Students Getting a Better Education?” and “Vouchers Are a Windfall for Everyone But Milwaukee Property Taxpayers”), he is responsible for lifting the cap on voucher enrollment in 2006, to 22,500 students, which is putting financial strain on MPS. And while Barrett had pushed to fix one of the two funding flaws that penalize Milwaukee city taxpayers, he has not advocated for fixing the other funding flaw that would bring more state dollars into MPS.

State Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee), who sits on the Assembly’s Education Committee, said any discussion of reforming MPS—including the proposed council— must include the voucher program. “Voucher schools are public schools,” Krusick said. “Over half of the voucher schools in Milwaukee receive 90% or more of their money from the state of Wisconsin. But there is no accountability or transparency.”

Krusick said a recent survey of her constituents found that 90% of them want to know the full data on voucher schools, including test scores by grade, school and subject. “There is no data for making intelligent, informed decisions,” she said.

The School Finance Network (SFN), a coalition of public school advocates, has proposed scrapping the way the state funds public education, and developing a new formula that more accurately reflects the true cost of educating children.

“The formula we have now doesn’t work for kids,” said Tom Beebe of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a member of the SFN.

The Assembly will hear testimony about the School Finance Network’s proposals this week, which will be covered in the Shepherd’s political blog, the Daily Dose, at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Comment on this article online at ExpressMilwaukee.com.



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