Searching for a Milwaukee Education Governance Solution

Alan Borsuk’s latest column on the state of Milwaukee’s education system is pretty depressing. More depressing are the comments that follow the column on Jsonline. I just shake my head, what is it about education policy? It seems everyone has the right opinion, and everyone has someone to blame for Milwaukee’s struggles.

Every week there seems to be a new a commentary demanding bold solutions to Milwaukee’s education crisis. Bold like vouchers? Charter schools? Public school choice? Race-based busing? An opportunity school district? A focus on neighborhood schools? Teach for America? Decentralization? Recentralization? More involvement from the business community? Small schools? Shall I go on?

Milwaukee has done bold. Bold feels good. It attracts headlines, it attracts good people accustomed to solving tough problems. It is even energizing. But Milwaukee’s experience demonstrates how energy fades, and how bold new solutions often yield minimal long-term academic gains.

Which brings me to governance. Governance is not sexy. When I start talking about school boards to reform advocates and researchers they tend to smile politely and move on to someone with a new bold idea. But, after over a decade in education reform, I am fully convinced that no new idea can work without the proper governance structure in place. The Milwaukee case illustrates this well. In my classes I emphasize economy of force as crucial to successful management, i.e. organizations need to minimize the resources placed toward secondary objectives. Milwaukee’s education system, today, is all about secondary objectives. While everyone agrees on the need to improve outcomes, interest groups, funders, policy-makers, pundits, and reform advocates are all moving in different directions, and often in an adversarial manner.

I am not suggesting that everyone simply needs to get along. Maybe I am a little naïve, but not hopelessly so. What I am suggesting is a unified governing body that serves a legitimizing function for all publicly funded Milwaukee schools. I know groups like Milwaukee Succeeds and Schools that Can are working across sectors, and it is a positive thing for Milwaukee. But a nonprofit organization, no matter how well meaning, lacks the official power to lend true legitimacy too, and present a forum for, all actors in Milwaukee’s fragmented education system.

So what might a unified governance structure look like? I am thinking of an 11-seat board with 8 seats divided-up by market-share. In 2014-2015 Milwaukee schools had the following market-shares:

  • MPS: 77,316 – 69%
  • MPCP: 26,868 – 24%
  • Non-MPS charter: 8,393 – 7%

So, MPS would have 5 seats, the MPCP 2 seats, and non-MPS charter schools 1 seat. Representatives could be elected by parents (all parents with publicly funded children in a sector get one vote) or schools (1 vote per-school). The remaining three seats on the board would be elected by all eligible voters in Milwaukee.   This board would be legally charged with overseeing Milwaukee’s diverse education system. It would hire a superintendent who oversees all publicly funded Milwaukee schools. For this to work, a unified funding and regulatory structure would need to be in place. Creating it could be task one for the new board.

This idea is far from perfect. An 11-member board feels too big, for example. It would also require MPS to give up some control, and the charter and voucher sectors some independence. But, it would formally establish that all three school sectors are permanent legitimate providers of public education in Milwaukee while creating a mechanism for local control. I am fully aware that I am using the past failure of new bold ideas to support my new bold idea. What is the difference?   Democratic governance is neither new nor bold. It is, for all its messiness, an accepted form of governance that confers legitimacy and representation to public organizations.

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