“The System…Is Broken”: Milwaukee Public Schools Dissolution Vote

Joan Jett, “You dont know what you got (till it’s gone)” (click to listen or download)

The big news from Milwaukee this week was the 6-3 vote to explore dissolving the school district  This is news so big that even the New York Times covered it.  It is only the first step in what might turn out to be a long process (Alan Borsuk at the Journal-Sentinal has a good Q&A on the details), a similar process is ongoing in Wausaukee.

How did it come to this.?

Milwaukee Superintendent William Andrekopoulos began the meeting where the vote was taken by repeating the sentence: “The state finance system to fund Milwaukee Public Schools is broken.”

This is true.

The broader  statement, ““The state finance system is broken,” is also true.

Legally, politically, demographically and in many other ways the Milwaukee schools are different than the rest of the state, but we all share the same basic, broken system of funding education.  This broken system wrecks havoc on different districts in different ways, but in both the long and short term, it isn’t working as well as it should for any district or any of the students.

If you want to know more about the unique issues Milwaukee faces, I’d start with Supt. Andrekopoulos 2006 testimony before the Special Joint Committee to Review the School Aid Formula and the accompanying documents (scroll down to Oct. 5; if you want to learn about the damage being done elsewhere, check the other testimony).  Some developments since then have also contributed to the situation.  Most of these have been covered very well on Gretchen Schuldt’s Blogging MPS.

Shudlt is a financial analyst with MPS, so she knows her stuff.  Her latest post is a memo from School Board President Peter Blewett complaining/explaining that the vote was not by the Board per se, but by all nine members of the Board meeting as the Strategic Planning Committee.  Perhaps a distinction without difference, but given how convoluted Board rules can be, it could have significance.

I am going to quote an earlier post in full, because it is short and really captures the no-win situation Milwaukee faces:

The ugly outlook

The ugly fiscal outlook for MPS was made quite clear in a report the School Board’s Strategic Planning and Budget Committee got last night.

Here it is in a nutshell.

If the School Board, in adopting a final FY09 budget next month, doesn’t make any cuts to the budget it gave preliminary approval to in the spring, the required tax levy would be 14.9% higher than the levy for the FY08 budget.

If it adopts the budget total proposed by the administration, before the Board amended it, the levy would increase 11.3%; holding spending at FY08 levels would require a 9.1% levy increase.

It’s amazing what a $20 million state aid cut will do, isn’t it?

A property tax freeze would force the School Board to cut $37.5 million from the spring-approved budget, while holding the district’s levy increase to the southeastern Wisconsin average of 6.9% would require a $20.2 million cut.

You can see the chart the committee received here.

What’s a district to do? Any suggestions?

Of course there is glee , but no real answers in the right-wing blogsphere.  Texas Hold’Em Blogger, Nick at Badger Blogger and others have their predictable rants about “educrats,” teachers unions, mismanagement and “trimming the fat.”  The best any can come up with is Owen at Boots and Sabers‘ unsupported statement that “dissolving it outright, or breaking it into several smaller districts, would make a real difference.”  Of course Owen knows this because…well, just because.

The Joan Jett song at the top is there as a reminder that despite all the faults and missteps, MPS does many things well and if it were gone these things would be lost.  The recent comparison of MPS student achievement and  voucher school student achievement demonstrated that Milwaukee schools does as well or better than the only alternative anyone has come up with.

Unfortunately, Governor Doyle has added fuel to the fire being stoked by the anti crowd.  He wants a “complete evaluation” of the situation “wants to know whether MPS is making the best use of the money it has.”  Investigation is in order, but this kind of language isn’t helpful.  First, no organization as large as MPS (or the State of Wisconsin, or AIG, or…) ever always “makes the best use of” their resources.  There are always mistakes and there is always waste.  Every effort can and must (and has) been made to improve, but the “best use” standard is false and unachievable, kind of like all students proficient under NCLB.  Second, Doyle is well aware of the statewide problems caused by a broken school finance system and the particulars of how these have played out in Milwaukee.  Being no fool, he knows that these — not local mismanagement in Milwaukee or Wausaukee —  are the primary problem.  Thus far he has lacked the political courage to act on this knowledge.  There is much hope in some quarters that the election results in November will change this.

A teacher blogger at School Board Watch has the right idea about how this might happen:

I want every school board member to get to Madison weekly and tell the real stories of MPS and our kids. I want the Milwaukee newspapers to ask teachers what we need, and then tell those stories; and even more than that, I want the MJS to get behind a better way of funding schools…

I want the citizens of this state to listen to Libby Burmaster when she says that Wisconsin schools have reached their limit.…because the reality is that MPS is suffering, but so are Florence, River Falls, Sparta, Kimberly, and Hazel Green. And I want everyone to know that we are teaching the greatest proportion of kids in the state who have needs beyond what most of us can imagine or understand.

Next to last word goes to another Milwaukee educator/blogger and a favorite with the AMPS team, Jay Bullock of Folkbum’s Rambles.  He does a fine job reviewing the particulars of the funding situation and ends with a very pessimistic thought,

More likely, it will simply increase the rate at which the parents who can keep bailing on MPS. Those departing students leaves a harder-to-teach population behind, compounding every one of our most expensive problems exponentially.

This is the “starve the beast,” “going out of business,” death spiral that is the dream of the provocateurs of privatization.  We can’t let that happen.  We need to remember the common good and work for it.

The Milwaukee voucher program has hurt the schools financially and already put the district in the targeting sites of the antis.  We have to stand up for Milwaukee and all the other threatened districts before the death spiral is out of control, before it is too late.

Give our schools a system of allocating resources that works, give those that are struggling some time and then see what happens.  These things have to happen in that order, to judge so harshly the products of a broken finance system is senseless.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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