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.