Will the Milwaukee Opportunity School District Work?

Probably not. For those unfamiliar, the Milwaukee Opportunity District will transfer the governing authority of certain Milwaukee schools over to “a Commissioner appointed by the County Executive”(read all about it starting on page 557 of the linked document).   Eventually, up to five Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) deemed failing under the Wisconsin accountability report card will annually be transferred over to the Milwaukee opportunity district. That district will hand operating authority of these failing schools over to charter school, voucher school, or new school operators via a contracting process. The caveat is that the schools under contract must have a demonstrated track record of operating a school with test scores that are higher than the schools they are charged with turning around. Simple, right?

While I have no doubt this plan comes from a sincere desire to improve the lot of some of Wisconsin’s neediest students, it is premised on many questionable assumptions. First, it assumes that the MPS governance structure is the reason these schools are failing to meet expectations. Where is the evidence of this? Consider, if you accept that the MPS governance structure is the cause of the lowest-performing schools in the district than you must accept that the MPS governance structure is also the cause of the highest performing district schools. Further, does this mean that the lowest performing voucher and charter schools are low-performing simply because they are voucher and charter schools? This discussion is getting a bit muddled, and that is the point. If 25+ years of macro-governance reform in Milwaukee have proved anything, it is that there is nothing inherently superior or inferior about a voucher, charter, or MPS school. Yet, the Milwaukee plan seems to ignore this fact.

Second, the unit of analysis is wrong. While it is smart that policy makers want to ensure only high-quality operators are given authority over schools in this new district, the spotty track record of replication and expansion efforts is telling. Every school is a unique organization with a unique culture. A high-performing school has built and cultivated that culture over time and cannot quickly transfer that into a different organization. Doing so will take time and effort, and it will not necessarily work. As a wise person in Milwaukee education once told me, everyone seems to underestimate just how difficult it is to create a quality school. It takes more than will.

Third, this proposal further fragments Milwaukee’s disjointed public education system. I have written before and still believe the maintenance and strengthening of Milwaukee’s publicly funded education institutions is a moral imperative. While I doubt anyone would go back 25 years ago and create the system we have today, especially given the results, it is the reality on the ground. The public policy priority should be, in my opinion, recognizing the value of all sectors of Milwaukee’s education system by working towards building a coherent governance model with consistent goals, funding, and accountability expectations. Most importantly, any coherent governance model must be representative of the diversity of views held by Milwaukee citizens. I do not see how this is possible without a democratically elected board.

I hope I am wrong and that the Milwaukee Opportunity School District turns around the lowest performing schools in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, so much of this plan tells me it cannot work.

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2 thoughts on “Will the Milwaukee Opportunity School District Work?

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