Education Round-Up: Union Leader Out, Voucher Testing In

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public

So much going on. It’s hard to keep up. So here’s a round-up of a few things on the local education scene that are actually pretty important, but haven’t gotten much attention in recent days:

MTEA executive director is out: Stan Johnson, the executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, is out, continuing a period of difficulties and instability in leadership of the union.  Johnson resigned last week “for personal reasons,” according to a union spokesman who said there would be no further comment. But Johnson’s abrupt departure suggested it was not an amiable matter.

Johnson was previously president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the union organizations which has been at the heart of education politics in Wisconsin in recent decades. He was one of the most widely known teachers’ union figures in the state.

 In a period when all teachers’ unions have been facing a lot of challenges, the MTEA has had had the complication of continuing leadership issues.  Tom Morgan was named executive director in 2007, succeeding long-term union leader Sam Carmen. But Morgan died of a heart attack while on a vacation cruise in March 2010. Since then, the union went through several interim directors and a search for a new executive director that ended with no candidate being selected Carmen came out of retirement for  several months and it was during Carmen’s return that the MTEA reached a four-year contract agreement with the Milwaukee School Board. Johnson was hired after Carmen returned to retirement last fall.

With Johnson gone,  long-time union staffer Sid Hatch has been named acting executive director. Separately, the union is installing a new president this week. Mike Langyel, who was president the last two years (and was president from 1991 to 1993 as well), has retired and Bob Peterson, a veteran teacher who is nationally known for his work on social justice issues and his founding of the Rethinking Schools education publication, is the new president.

Testing for voucher students:  One of the unpublicized aspects of the voucher proposal approved last week by the legislature’s joint finance committee was a plan for students who use publicly-funded vouchers to attend private schools to continue to take the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations, the tests taken by public school students. But there is a twist to the decision that will make it a little tricky to compare the results from voucher schools and public schools.

Last fall, for the first time,  thousands of voucher students in Milwaukee took the WKCEs and the overall scores of the private schools were made public this spring. The results showed that there were no big differences in how students in Milwaukee Public Schools and voucher students rated. In fact, MPS outscored the voucher schools in some instances.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Scott Walker came out for lifting the WKCE requirement for the voucher schools, although each private school would have had to administer a different nationally recognized test. That led to concerns that the private schools would not be subject to the degree of accountability that goes with having test scores that can be compared with public schools.

The Republican-controlled finance committee agreed to keep the WKCE requirement, but said the results for each voucher school would be presented based on only the students who took the test. What does that mean? In some private schools, such as Downtown Montessori, a large number of parents used their legal option to withdraw their children from testing. But the overall results for those schools were presented as if those students had scored zeroes, which made the schools look pretty weak. Now, the results will be presented based on only those who take the tests, which will mean much better looking results for a school where a significant number of students opt out.

But public schools are required to report the results based ion all students, including the kids who opt out. (In general, very few do that). Therefore, there might be an issue of comparability between schools where all students are in the results pool and schools where only those who take the test are included.   

Old faces at new schools:  A brief note about plans to turn around two of MPS’ most troubled high schools, North and Custer. Work has been underway for months to select an organization to run the new North. Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a national school operator, was selected after submitting the only bid, but trepidations about Mosaica were substantial, based in large part on problems the company has had in other places. Mosaica has now withdrawn, and the Milwaukee School Board decided recently to turn North into a charter school with teachers who are MPS employees. Rogers Onick, who retired after many years as principal of Morse Middle School for the Gifted and Talented, has agreed to oversee the launching of the new operation.

Custer High School is also undergoing an overhaul of its programs (and is losing that name). What will be called the School of Career and Technical Education will now occupy much of the building at 5075 N. Sherman Blvd. Plans call for it to serve sixth through twelfth graders. It also will be a charter school where the teachers are MPS employee. And overseeing the new program will be Gloria Erkins, retired principal of Vincent High School.

Also in the Custer building will be the former 35th Street School. No longer on 35h Street, plans call for it to be named after President Barack Obama.

Extra funding for special ed students?  In a recent opinion column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, two of the key researchers who have studied Milwaukee’s schools, particularly the private voucher schools, wrote, “Public schools have both strong incentives to classify students as requiring exceptional education, because they receive extra funding to teach such students and well-established protocols for doing so. Private schools have neither. A student with the same educational needs often will be classified as exceptional education in MPS but not so classified in the choice program.”

The two were addressing the issue of why students identified as needing special educations services are found so much more frequently in MPS schools (about 19% of all students), compared to the voucher schools (some say under 2%, some say the number is more like 8%, except many of them are not officially labeled as special ed students).

That raised the hackles of MPS Superintendent Greg Thornton. He wrote on his blog, “Really? Can they honestly believe that?” He said it is not true that MPS has strong incentives to classify kids as needing special ed. “Due to low and declining levels of reimbursement from the federal and state levels, the costs associated with providing needed services to students with disabilities far outpace any so-called ‘extra funding,’ Thornton wrote. “ In the 2009-10 school year, using the most conservative method of calculating special education funding, Milwaukee Public Schools incurred unreimbursed special education costs of $42.2 million.”

Michael Bonds’ bankruptcy: Is it a big deal that Michael Bonds, president of the Milwaukee School Board, has filed for personal bankruptcy? In many ways, no. It’s his personal business and most likely won’t affect what he does as board president. But  I suspect the matter is going to stick in people’s minds for a long time and become part of the general climate of doubtfulness about the competency of the School Board to manage MPS. Is that fair? You’re welcome to your own opinion. But I suspect it is reality.

3 thoughts on “Education Round-Up: Union Leader Out, Voucher Testing In”

  1. Thank you Alan for the round-up. One correction: Downtown Montessori is a City of Milwaukee Charter School, not a private school.

  2. As I understand it, the MPS School Board president earns about $18,000 a year in addition to whatever he earns at UWM. I am thinking that his total yearly income is not much more than the average MPS principal. So, it is not of any significance that Michael Bonds is filing bankruptcy. No one knows what unforeseen financial incidents he may have incurred over the years. And … YES! It is his personal legal and financial business.

    Can the MPS School Board competently run MPS? I honestly feel they are doing as well as any voucher/choice school; however, those schools are so insulated from scutiny that the general public will never know the truth.

    If private/choice/voucher schools were not insulated, their teachers would need to be licensed just as public school teachers; there would be similar standardized testing mechanisms for ALL of their students; they would be required to service special needs students; and they would not be allowed to “ship” undesired students back to MPS without returning the money received from MPS’s financial pool.

  3. I am the Head of School at Downtown Montessori Academy. We are a City of Milwaukee Charter School. Our Public Charter was granted in 1998 and we have continued since then to be one of the top schools in the state. We have a diverse poulation of students from around the city. Our students have ALL taken the WKCE since 1998 and they are all proud of their skills! We have also always met AYP. Please contact me if you would like to know more about who we really are!
    Virginia Flynn

Join the Conversation

We reserve the right not to publish comments based on such concerns as redundancy, incivility, untimeliness, poor writing, etc. All comments must include the first and last name of the author in the NAME field and a valid e-mail address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.