Hope for MPS? How the law already provides a path forward…

Last night’s Milwaukee Public Schools board meeting highlighted that what previously seemed to be a silent majority, the parents and teachers of MPS, are no longer staying silent. The district’s recent failures to properly report financial data to DPI and its incompetence in running the Headstart program could cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars, which has broken the trust between the district and the community. This breakdown in trust comes despite the district’s successful effort in securing a $252 million referendum in the April election. The resignation of Superintendent Posley last night could represent a chance for meaningful change in the district, but it could also simply represent an easy scapegoat for a flailing school board.

With many calling for recalling the board members, highlighting past reform attempts, some that are still in state law, may provide an avenue of hope for families in the district desperate for reform.  

The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP) was adopted as part of the 2015-17 state budget. The program was created to encourage new leadership and change at low performing school districts around the state, with a particular focus on Milwaukee.  Under the OSPP, a Commissioner must be appointed from a list created by the Milwaukee County Executive, Governor and Mayor. The Milwaukee County Executive selects a candidate from this list, who would then holds the power to oversee the OSPP.  If MPS falls into the lowest category on the state report card (which it has not in recent years—more on that later), the OSPP Commissioner can gain control of up to five low-performing schools.  The Commissioner would be empowered to determine if the selected schools would be transferred to an outside entity, a current charter operator, or the operator of a non-religious private school.  Only charter authorizers and private schools that performed higher than the district school on the most recent state exam would be eligible to receive transfers.

Unfortunately, the program’s implementation was doomed from the start due to political pressure.  The Superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville, Demond Means, was appointed Commissioner, but immediately showed an unwillingness to take action. WILL wrote at the time that Means was refusing to do what the law required of him, saying that he “has no intention of taking control of any of MPSs’ struggling schools.”  Instead, Means sought to form a collaborative partnership with MPS, where the district and the OSPP would work together to determine which schools to place under OSPP.  However, the district refused to help. In a statement upon his resignation, Means said,  “It is now clear to me that as implementation of the law moves forward, the environment is not conducive to collaborative partnerships — something essential for positive things to happen in Milwaukee.” 


After the resignation of Means, the OSPP effectively came to an end.  No new Commissioner has been appointed by the Milwaukee County Executive, and no action was taken by the legislature to enforce the law. Today, shockingly, MPS is not eligible for the OSPP because it is “meeting expectations” on the state’s report card. WILL has written extensively on the absurdity of a report card where a district with under 20% proficiency in math and ELA in recent years can meet expectations.  That said, reform to a report card that is currently uninformative for parents, policymakers, and the public in general seems an easier lift than many of the other proposals on the table.

Other solutions for the MPS mess have been popular topics for Milwaukee business leaders, MPS parents and opinion pieces. Former Senator Alberta Darling authored a bill to break up the district into smaller ones. While the intent of this legislation was grounded in a desire for true reform, it is unclear how likely such changes would solve the actual problems plaguing MPS. While smaller school districts in Wisconsin and nationwide perform better on average, much of that advantage is likely due to the demographics of students in smaller districts—who are wealthier and less diverse on average than larger districts in the United States. While much of the existing evidence suggests teachers union strength grows with district size, these studies generally look at pre-existing school districts rather than the breakup of existing ones. One could imagine that the breaking up of a large district with established strong unions into smaller ones could actually work to further strengthen the union as smaller numbers of union members need to be organized in each district.

But the OSPP could be a key first step for creating reform at MPS. For example, the requirement to have outside enforcement of the program with the Commissioner and changing the administration of the failing schools could be transformational.  But this will require a strong Commissioner who doesn’t desire to work with MPS, but rather sees them as an adversarial impediment to needed reform.  This would require that legislature take the OSPP seriously and fund the position as they failed to do previously when Means served in an unpaid role. 

MPS’s failures didn’t begin with Headstart or financial documents. In reality, the district and its administration have been failing kids for more than fifty years. This continued failure led to the creation of the first school choice program in the nation in 1990, but we cannot forget the 70% of students who are still being educated in the public system.  A renewal of OSPP could be the clearest and fastest path to reform, and legislators and the Governor must make use of it.  


Will Flanders, PHD

Will Flanders, PHD

Research Director

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