What is the Milwaukee Opportunity District Supposed to Be?

A few months ago I expressed by skepticism about the Milwaukee Opportunity School District. While I think there is good evidence governance can impact outcomes, I also think the Opportunity District is built on a faulty premise. You can read my take here: https://mikeinoshkosh.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/will-the-milwaukee-opportunity-school-district-work/.

I have watched this process unfold over the past year and I remain unconvinced that it will lead to positive change. Why? The process has been a mess. Not quite a comedy of errors, but close. For reforms like this to work there needs to be, in my opinion, the following:

  • A clear plan on how positive change will occur. Right now the plan is 1) Move schools to this new district or introduce some reforms, 2) Something happens, 3) Student achievement improves. I am being a bit unfair as there are some specifics, but the question of why these reforms can only occur after a governance change has not been adequately answered.
  • Strong leadership. Demond Means is, by all accounts, a good superintendent. But turning around some of the most challenging schools in the state cannot be a part-time job. From my outsider perspective, a part-time appointment, and a lack of state funding for the position, demonstrates a lack of seriousness.

This whole thing is (again just my opinion) a case of well-meaning people moving forward without a clear plan because of their desire to do something, anything, to improve the situation in Milwaukee. I have so many questions. Why were the legislative proponents of this plan not more specific? If a recovery school district model was desired, why was it not directly proposed? Why was the County Executive chosen to appoint the leader of this district rather than the Mayor or some other strictly city official? Where does the school board fit into this? Why was funding not attached to the bill?

I am not totally naïve, the answer to all these questions is politics. But having watched so many well-meaning reform attempts fail to stick in Milwaukee, I hate to see so much energy, so much caring, and so much effort expanded on something that is unlikely to work. I could play the blame game and say Abele is at fault for not following the legislator’s intent, the school board is at fault for being territorial at the expense of kids, the legislators are at fault for outside meddling, the mayor is at fault for not being strong enough to be a player in this reform, etc.

But what is the point of blame? The facts on the ground, whatever their cause, are what matter. Right now I cannot make sense of what exactly the Milwaukee Opportunity District is supposed to be. This reality tells me it is unlikely to work. As always, I hope I am wrong.


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