More Thoughts on the Milwaukee Opportunity School District

A little ways back I helped manage a project for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) entitled “Pathways to Success for Milwaukee Schools.” The project includes a chapter on the idea of a recovery school district (I should note the project was conducted by previous leadership at WPRI, and these are just my opinions). I personally have expressed skepticism regarding the Milwaukee Opportunity School District. Did I change my mind, am I a hypocrite?

Well, the goal of the project was to provide some actual concrete ideas for improving Milwaukee schools, regardless of sector. For too long the education policy focus in Wisconsin has been on overly simplistic solutions to complex challenges. I.e.,we need vouchers, we need non-district charters, we need smaller class sizes, we need more money, if we only sold the empty buildings, we need to break up the district, we need to get rid of vouchers, we need neighborhood schools, etc. The approach used over the past thirty years has been disjointed, inconsistent, and ultimately ineffective at improving the aggregate performance of Milwaukee students. Because of this, the WPRI project was appropriately vast, including chapters on new schools and innovation, quality control, teacher development, and the use of data. I personally supported some of the ideas presented, and was skeptical of others. But my personal opinion really was not the point. The point was to get new thinking out into the public sphere that shed light on the complexity of the challenge.

Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Opportunity School District repeats the mistakes of the past by putting all the focus on structure rather than substance. Is a recovery school district an objectively bad idea? I do not know…but I think in the case of Milwaukee it is a mistake. It further fragments the governance structure, funding mechanisms, accessibility, performance measurement methods, and politics of the city’s schools.

And that, more than anything else in my opinion, is what holds back student achievement. If a public organization has no agreed upon objective or strategy, there is no way it can be successful.   What is needed is legitimacy…recognition by stakeholders and the public at-large that an approach or goal is the right course of action. I personally think this is a task best executed by a democratically elected school board. I guess I am just a sucker for democracy.

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