Is Governance Reform in the Future for Milwaukee Public Schools?

There is growing consensus that the Milwaukee Public Schools are at a critical moment in their history.  Faced with daunting fiscal challenges last year, some school board members talked openly about dissolving the district, only to later amend their comments.  It was a symbolic protest, they said, an attempt to draw attention to the district’s dismal financial outlook.  But the horse was out of the barn. The board’s “dissolution discussion” opened the door to new debate about MPS’s future.  An independent review of the district’s fiscal situation, paid for by local foundations, was commissioned and should be made public soon.  Once that happens, Governor Doyle is expected to weigh in on the district’s future course.  What that path will be is still uncertain, but last week, we had a fascinating discussion here at the Law School about the possibility of changing the way MPS is governed.

The event was co-sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and came on the heels of a study that examined five other districts that had changed their governance.  The study was funded by the GMF and conducted by the Public Policy Forum.  We’ve posted a transcript of the event, which featured MPS Superintendent Bill Andrekopoulos, former Superintendent and Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University Howard Fuller, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy, Milwaukee School Board Director Jennifer Morales, State Representative Polly Williams, Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Dennis Oulahan, and Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines.

You can always listen to the webcast of our event, but the evening had a revealing dynamic to it that makes for equally interesting reading.

As a long-time observer and graduate of MPS (in the interest of full disclosure, my father was also once the Superintendent here), I was particularly struck by the answers to two questions.  Is MPS, in its current form, sustainable?  And five years from now, will there have been a change in school governance in Milwaukee?  The answer to the first question was virtually unanimous.  No, it’s not sustainable.  But most of the panel also wasn’t convinced we’d see a change in governance anytime soon.  Several panelists said there is no silver bullet for fixing what ails MPS.  For those who advocate a mayoral takeover of the district or dividing MPS into smaller districts, the evening had to be a bit of a wakeup call.  It’s possible that a change in governance may come to MPS, but last week’s forum suggested that any new proposals will face a good deal of skepticism, if not outright opposition.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Michael M. O'Hear

    It seems to me that MPS’s problems are more fiscal than governance-related. With a long-term structural budget deficit, I doubt that any governance structure could make the system work much better. On the other hand, there may be an indirect role for governance reform. The fiscal problems will require a state legislative fix, but MPS inspires so little confidence in the legislature that it seems unlikely the system will get either more money or more autonomy without at least some symbolic break from the past. It is possible, then, that governance reform might grease the wheels for school financing reform, which is what we really need.

  2. Orville Seymer

    Unfortunately, you cannot separate the governance portion of MPS from the fiscal portion of MPS, they are both intertwined.

    MPS also seems to have a compulsion to spend taxpayers money on food for every event that they have.

    If there is any question about this issue, check out the database at where you can search all of the MPS spending over the past 3 years.

  3. Mike McChrystal

    Governance and finance are surely two key variables in whether MPS will advance, but the morale of the teachers and staff (by which I mean “psychological well-being based upon a sense of confidence and usefulness and purpose”) is perhaps the paramount concern. Dennis Oulahan, president of the teachers’ association, rang an alarm during the discussion that Mike Gousha moderated:

    “You know, we can dance around and change the topic as much as we want. The people who do the work have to drive the change, and there are things we can do. You know, earlier somebody said, well, we know what works, why isn’t it happening? One of the big reasons is that people don’t – people are just hanging on by their fingernails. I mean, they really are.”

    These are devastating atmospherics in which performance at a high level seems terribly difficult and unlikely. While improvements in MPS governance and finances might reduce the feeling that teachers and staff are hanging on by their fingernails, surely there must be strategies that are more directly aimed at this problem. If this embattled work environment is to improve, some new sense of direction seems required. Something big, something more than a few new board members and/or slightly larger teacher paychecks, seems to be required.

  4. First of all, the MU School of Law deserves to be acknowledged for its willingness to provide an objective public policy forum for issues germane to our urban public school system. It’s the kind of civic engagement and community service that academic units here should aspire to deliver whenever possible.

    For what it’s worth, I attended the panel discussion on mayoral control of the school district, and found it to be interesting, although short of fascinating. Much of what the panelists shared with the audience struck me as being predictable given their affiliations and histories, but nonetheless, I credit each one of them for adding value to the discussion. They were all well versed in their viewpoints and expressed them in an articulate and crisp manner while responding to Mike Gousha’s always thoughtful questions. However, anyone who hoped that the evening would end with appreciably greater clarity on the issues probably left unsatisfied. One panel member commented to me jokingly afterwards by saying, “Clear as mud, huh?”

    Even so, it was important to air out this governance issue, and in hindsight, I’m not convinced that the discussion could have engendered much more in the way of closure in any case. The Public Policy Forum’s report, despite the questions that were rightly or wrongly raised about it at the event, did foreshadow the fact that the question of mayoral control can’t be answered definitively based upon the existing body of evidence. Neither the argument in favor of this change in governance nor the argument opposing it fairly qualifies as compelling. In fact, my personal sense is that there are so many disparate factors at work in making city-to-city comparisons around public schooling issues that generalizability is inadvisable at best.

    Where the governance issue (or any other notable issue related to MPS) matters is the extent to which it bears on the district’s financial status and its capacity to educate our city’s children. If the current elected school board model cannot address the seemingly imminent fiscal demise of the district and another model can, then the issue is relevant. Otherwise, let’s move on. Given the funding trajectory as I understand it, though, I seriously doubt that any governance model alone can right its course. Nevertheless, there is NO question that the impending fiscal crisis demands immediate, insightful, and extensive attention, although how it should be addressed remains a question whose answer appears to be as opaque as the mayoral control resolution.

    Beyond the hope that the funding situation can somehow be fixed, we are left with the core issue that ultimately matters for any school or district – student achievement. I believe that MPS is taking noteworthy steps to address this central element of its mission, looking both inwardly and elsewhere for guidance on best educational practices. The district should be commended for these efforts, but the pace of the innovations must accelerate in order to match the sense of urgency that all of us in Milwaukee feel about our city’s challenged school system.

    Now in my fifth year here, I’ve concluded that this community engages in decidedly more dialogue, presumably well intentioned, about the health of its public education enterprise than anywhere I’ve ever been – and that experience spans more than a quarter century of working with urban school districts. Still, I think it’s fair to say that all of us who care deeply about MPS and understand the gravity of the situation believe that we’ve long since passed the point where talk alone provides any significant relief or promise.

    The reality is that the changes in MPS itself must be systemic if not sweeping, because the district has major implementation challenges related to its large scale that prevent it from being nimble. But for our part as a community, we need to join together and act in unison now, because the future of our Milwaukee school children literally hangs in the balance.

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