What Does it Mean for a Milwaukee Education Reform to Work?

Last week I tweeted a link to this op-ed calling for a Milwaukee Public School (MPS) education czar, quipping that “A move like this that only deals with MPS will not work.” I was asked, quite fairly, how I defined “work.” My standing position is that any reform dealing with only one sector ignores the broader context of Milwaukee’s education scene and is thus insufficient. But does insufficient mean not worthwhile? Am I being myopic?

First, on the specific idea of an MPS education czar, I am generally skeptical of the great man theory of education reform. Time and time again we have seen the hot reformer of the day (remember Michelle Rhee in D.C.) come and go. It does not mean Rhee or others were not good leaders, it just means that taking the reigns of a large public school system and creating positive sustainable change is a larger task than can be accomplished by one person, no matter how talented. Enough of MPS’ problems are structural at this point that it is naïve to think it is simply a failure of leadership. That does not mean the MPS board is perfect, but it does mean that replacing a democratic institution requires more than just saying we will find a great leader to be a czar. It requires broad buy-in, resources, support from all levels of government, and a whole lot of patience. We could install the greatest education leader there is at MPS and I would not expect success.

More to the point, what does work mean? To me, a Milwaukee reform that works is one that meets the following conditions:

  • It retains a democratic component for purposes of legitimacy and accountability;
  • It creates funding and regulatory equity for all publicly funded Milwaukee schools;
  • Any school-level incentives and consequences apply across sectors;
  • It is adequately funded (what that means could be another blog post);
  • It addresses structural problems, including the lasting impacts of declining enrollment in MPS, legacy costs, underused facilities, across sector records retention, etc.;
  • It is built on the notion that the MPCP, MPS, and 2R Charter sectors are permanent necessary parts of Milwaukee’s education infrastructure;
  • Stability in regulation, reporting requirements, and performance measures;
  • Includes and independent research component with full and equitable access to fiscal and performance measures across sectors; and
  • Has broad horizontal (across school sectors and political interests in Milwaukee) and vertical (across levels of government and state political interests) buy-in.

I cannot guarantee a reform meeting these conditions would be successful. But, it would create the conditions in which broad impactful change is possible. And to bury the lede, that is what I mean by a reform that works, it is one that makes positive change to the system as a whole possible. Currently there is so much fragmentation, and so much switching between schools and sectors that a reform focused on one will likely fail. Perhaps I have grown cynical as I for a long time was of the position that something that does even a little good is worthwhile. But I shudder when I think of the wasted political capital and inflicted trauma of a reform effort that is single-sectored focused and thus not broadly sustainable in a system as fragmented as Milwaukee’s.

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