‘Miller Time’ Needs to Be Over in Milwaukee Public Schools

Will Flanders, Research Director WILL
Libby Sobic, Education Policy Director, WILL

Last week in the Journal Sentinel, former MPS President Larry Miller wrote a response to Northwestern CEO John Schlifske’s recent piece on the educational landscape in Milwaukee. Using the recent failure to renew the contract of the high-performing Milwaukee College Prep (MCP) charters as a motivation, Schlifske describes a shift in support away from MPS to better performing alternatives.  As is typical of those who oppose school choice, Miller’s piece is full of misconceptions and outright falsehoods that distract from the important goal of ensuring that more kids have access to high quality schools.   Below, we highlight three of the biggest problems with his piece.

Admissions Requirements:In fact, once a student is selected, families must agree to a strict contract that cannot be legally required at any public school. It requires that parents support enforcement of a strict uniform and behavior code, check off homework nightly, attend parent conferences and spend a certain number of hours in the school. Those terms prevent many low-income families from participating.”

Miller claims that the parental agreement that students at some charter schools must agree to constitutes an admissions requirement.  However, this could not be further from the truth. Many charter schools recognize that parental involvement is key to student success, and strive to make that happen. This vision is shared by the parents of students who choose to attend these schools, and the requirements are far from onerous. What is not mentioned by Miller is that many of the best public schools in MPS—such as Golda Meir or many of the Montessori schools—have strict admissions guidelines that truly close the door on many students.  Indeed, what Miller calls the “beauty and necessity” of public schools in being open to all students is not met by these schools.

The list of entry requirements is extremely long.  Students must submit their last two years of report card grades, two recommendations, and FOWARD exam scores to even be considered.  We don’t necessarily oppose these measures—there can be value in gearing a learning environment to a certain type of student.  But it is the height of hypocrisy for Miller to attack the relatively straightforward agreements required in some charters while ignoring that far stricter rules exist at some schools under MPS’s purview.

Mischaracterizing MPS’s Funding: “MPS operates on per-pupil funding of $14,568.” This is simply not true. The actual number is much less. Opponents of public education arrive at that figure by dividing the total budget of MPS by the number of students. The problem is that large amounts included in the overall budget go to private schools, charter schools and services provided for the Milwaukee community as a whole.”

Miller claims that the number used by Schlifske to represent MPS funding per student is incorrect at $14,568 per student, and claims that money to private school choice and charter students must come out of this amount.   The first absurdity to note is that Miller appears not to consider charter schools to be public schools under his conception here.  As Schlifske describes, charter school students in Milwaukee are funded thousands of dollars less than traditional public school students.  For every non-instrumentality charter in the district, MPS takes a skim for some vague administrative cost, meaning that they have more money left for every other traditional public school student thanks to chartering.

Miller’s point regarding the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is even more off-base.  It is true that MPS continues to see an aid reduction for students who choose to leave the public school system for private school choice.  This makes sense—if a person decides to shop at Woodman’s rather than Pick ‘n Save, Pick n Save doesn’t continue to receive revenue.  But, MPS has the authority to levy to make up for that aid reduction, and they have done so.  According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau Analysis,

“MPS levied the maximum allowed under revenues limits and backfilled this aid reduction with levy.”

In other words, Miller’s claim regarding the need to take into account school choice funding when evaluating the MPS per pupil amount is patently false.

It is also worth noting that the most extreme decline in MPS funding is not from the state, but from declining enrollment as families look to attend other options.

Disability Status:A Milwaukee Public School, such as Gaenslen, serving a population of 47% special education, is not going to test as well as MCP. Should Gaenslen not receive the same support as the MCP 36th St. school, which serves only 11.1% special needs students?

Miller cherry-picks one of the highest disability-rate schools in Milwaukee and compares that school’s to the disability rate in MCP to make the case that charters don’t educate students with disabilities.  In reality, the disability rate in MPS is much closer to that in MCP charters.  Districtwide, disability rates are at 19.8%  while ranging from about 8% to 15% in MCP schools.   And some MPS schools have equally low rates.  The aforementioned Golda Meir School has only about 9.6% of students with disabilities.

Losing argument about choice

The last thirty years of Wisconsin education reform has proven that giving families access to educational options, regardless of their income or zip code, has improved outcomes for Wisconsin’s most vulnerable students. Miller claims that “trickle-down notion of education – help the top and hope that will somehow benefit the rest – is ineffective.” This is false and the number of high quality schools with waitlists across the city prove that. Schools like St. Marcus Lutheran School, one of the top performing private schools participating in the choice programs, have expanded campus after campus to respond to the demand from Milwaukee families. Public charter schools like Milwaukee College Prep and Carmen have expanded their options as well.

Mr. Miller then defaults to the classic response by the public school establishment – “Turning our backs on public schools — defunding and destroying them — is harmful to us all.” The business community investing into additional options is not turning their back on public schools. Families choosing to send their child to a school that is the best fit for them is not destroying public schools.

Across the political spectrum, there is a growing consensus that MPS is failing its most vulnerable students.   No longer is the better performance of choice and charter schools found only in our Apples to Apples study, but also from sources as diverse as Alan Borsuk and the Urban Milwaukee Data Wonk.  By refusing to support educational options for Milwaukee’s children, individuals like Larry Miller are finding themselves on the wrong side of the debate.  They sound less like well-reasoned defenses of the status quo, and more like the last desperate cries of a failing institution.

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