WILL Blog | Improving MPS (Part 3)

CJ Szafir, Vice President and Deputy Counsel, and Dr. Will Flanders, Education Research Director

This is the third in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks that will investigate ways for improving Milwaukee’s failing education system.  Previously, we examined the concept of Education Savings Accounts (ESA) and an enhanced voucher.  Today, we look at a bigger state takeover of failing MPS schools.

In June 2015, the state legislature passed the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP) which allowed Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to appoint a Commissioner to take over 1-3 failing traditional Milwaukee (MPS)  public schools–in the first year and up to 5 schools each year thereafter. Yet, one year later, the OSPP has not been implemented.  Nothing has happened.

Demond Means was appointed Commissioner but resigned in June 2016 after MPS’ refused to cooperate with him.  And, although OSPP is still the law of the land, County Executive Abele has yet to move forward with appointing a new Commissioner. The problems of the implementation of OSPP have been highlighted by WILL here and here.

Where does OSPP go from here?  Because its future is so uncertain, it is worth exploring the merits of bolstering OSPP, perhaps giving more power to the Commissioner, as well as more schools to manage.  This could mean making it more like the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana. Some education reformers see Louisiana’s model as the ideal state takeover plan.  What are the benefits and concerns of the Louisiana RSD?  Could it be a roadmap for reform in Milwaukee?

  1. So what is this Louisiana RSD that everyone talks about?

Before the enactment of the RSD, New Orleans Parish schools were in a poor state, much like MPS.  New Orleans Parish ranked 67th out of 68 parishes (essentially counties) in the state for academic achievement.  The graduation rate of the parish was 56%, which was well below even the disastrous state average of 66%.

In 2003, the state of Louisiana created the Louisiana Recovery School District.  Here is how it works – and some of the ways it differs from OSPP:

  • A superintendent of the Recovery School District is appointed by the Louisiana Superintendent of Education with prior approval of the state school board, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The Commissioner of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program in Milwaukee is made by the Milwaukee County Executive.
  • Any public school in Louisiana that scores below a particular threshold on test-based performance measures is labeled as “failing.”
  • The Louisiana Superintendent of Education and Superintendent of the RSD determine which of the failing schools – and school districts – will be placed in the RSD. Unlike OSPP, there is no minimum or maximum number of schools.
  • After schools are chosen for the RSD, the Louisiana Superintendent of Education and Superintendent of RSD create an individualized turnaround plan for each school. These   plans can include closing the school, turning it into a public charter, or running the school directly.  By way of contrast, it is worth noting that Commissioner of the OSPP does not have the power to close schools.  The turnaround plans are then sent to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education  – essentially a state school board composed of elected and governor-appointed individuals from around the state – for approval.
  • Once BESE gives its final approval, the superintendent of the RSD is in-charge of implementing the plan.[1]

Due in large part to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the RSD has grown dramatically and the Superintendent of RSD wields considerable power over New Orleans schools.  More than 100 schools, which were already producing poor results over an extended time period, have been transferred to the RSD.  Because of this, by 2014, New Orleans became the first major city in the United States to become all-charter.  The Superintendent of RSD has made difficult decisions too, closing 25 low performing schools and opened 23 new ones.

While there have been pitfalls along the way, academics are coming to believe that these reforms have been relatively beneficial.  Using sophisticated matching techniques that approach the causal inference provided by “gold standard” experiments, researchers at Tulane University show that performance by students in the Recovery District has risen by almost 15 points in recent years on state exams.

The Louisiana RSD has encouraged other states to try their own takeover of failing schools (besides Wisconsin).  For example, the Tennessee Achievement School District focused primarily on a small number failing schools in Memphis.  Unlike the RSD, Tennessee largely declined to turn these schools into charters, preferring to retain the concept of traditional neighborhood schools.[2]   However, a recent study by Vanderbilt University found no consistent differences between ASD schools and comparison schools.

  1. What is the case for a RSD-style state takeover of all of Milwaukee’s failing schools?  

Potential to provide immediate attention to all students in failing public schools.  There are currently more than 31,000 students in Milwaukee attending 55 schools that are labeled as “fail(ing) to meet expectations” by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Rather than working on the margins – like OSPP–a state takeover of all failing MPS schools would give an opportunity of immediate reform to thousands of children.

Chance for more independent charter schools.  As seen in the Louisiana RSD, a takeover effort that works closely with independent charter schools could give more children better school options.  This was something that was not a priority – at least publically – for County Executive Abele and the OSPP.

There is solid evidence that Milwaukee public charter schools, not overseen by Milwaukee Public Schools, i.e. independent public charters, produce better student outcomes than traditional public schools.  Recent research by WILL has shown that independent and non-instrumentality charter schools achieve the same or better academic results at a lower cost.  These schools also excel at closing the achievement gap. Looking at a longer time frame, Dr. John Witte and colleagues (2011) have found evidence that students in independent charter schools significantly outperform those in traditional public schools in both reading and math.

However it remains to be seen whether local high performing charter operators will want to take over existing public schools, as opposed to starting new ones. .   Milwaukee has a developed a poor reputation for education reform, with many national players concluding that MPS and local politicians are more interested in protecting the current arrangements for those who work for they system than they are in making changes that might serve kids.

Removal of MPS School Board and unions as barriers to reform.  The MPS Board of Directors has continually shown itself to be an unwilling partner in reforming education in Milwaukee.  The school board is almost completely captured by supporters of the teacher’s unions, who generally seem more concerned with protecting their turf than improving the educational options for Wisconsin’s poorest children.  An RSD could unshackle MPS’ lowest performing schools from the red tape and obstinacy of the education status quo.

For example, the commissioner of the RSD would have greater flexibility in staffing.  Under RSD, school leaders are provided a far higher degree of flexibility in hiring and firing of personnel similar to what currently exists in Wisconsin for independent charter schools.  This includes the hiring of teachers in areas of great need or because of specialized expertise that the teacher may offer, such as knowledge in the STEM fields.

Fostering Diversity in Educational Options.  Milwaukee’s charter schools already offer a broad number of educational focuses and pedagogical styles.  By opening up a large number of schools to charter school providers, both new and existing, Milwaukee can become a national focal point for education innovation in turning around failing schools.

3.  Because in public policy the devil is always in the details, a Milwaukee Recovery School District presents a number of questions that require careful consideration.

The dangers of “One Ring to Rule Them All:”  In a witty analogy to Lord of the Rings, prominent school choice scholar Professor Jay P. Greene has made the case that recovery school districts – or portfolio districts – give too much power to one person.  Too much centralized control can, ironically, lead to the very regulatory capture by public unions that these districts are created to avoid.  Greene claims that that: “[t]he ability to control who operates all types of schools and what regulations govern them is too much power not to attract bad people to it or to corrupt those who possess it.”

This leads to the integral question of who, in Wisconsin, should be given the power to appoint the person running the Recovery School District.  Unlike in Louisiana, Wisconsin has no state board of education.  We do have a Department of Public Instruction and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, but they have also been captives of the incumbent districts, administrators and teachers unions and have historically been hostile towards parental choice and education reform.

Placing appointment power in the hands of the Milwaukee County Executive was seen as a way out of this dilemma. But, so far, it hasn’t worked.

Perhaps the creation of an independent board, consisting of appointees from the majority and minority leadership of both chambers in the legislature, the governor, and the Milwaukee county executive or mayor of Milwaukee would be the best path forward.

What are the criteria for determining which school districts and schools are eligible for takeover?  The RSD in Louisiana was statewide with the ability for any school district to enter. Should Wisconsin do the same?  In the ’13-’14 report card,  only the Milwaukee School District was ranked as “fails to meet expectations” overall.  However, seven other districts, including Beloit, Racine, Menominee Indian, and Bayfield, “met few expectations.”  Shouldn’t those districts be included in the RSD?

Similar to the Louisiana RSD, takeover eligibility for individual schools within the designated districts may be based on state testing. Because of the possibility that there is some random variation in which schools are the worst on a yearly basis, eligibility for the  RSD may be limited to schools that are consistently in the bottom quarter on DPI’s performance metrics, perhaps over a three or five year span.

Whether – or how – it would be funded?  The OSPP did not receive any additional funding – other than the per pupil amount for the students at the schools what would become part of it.  There was not even funding for the OSPP Commissioner’s salary (the RSD Superintendent is paid a salary of over $220,000).  It is reasonable to discuss whether these schools need a “jump start” of additional funding for the first couple of years after takeover.

Is a Milwaukee RSD undemocratic?  The case can be made that the RSD is a top-down approach which removes power from the hands of Milwaukee residents.  After all, the MPS School Board is elected by the people and if they are unhappy with their school system, they can elect new leadership.

Ultimately, under a RSD, the state would own the failing schools problem.  As the saying goes, “you break it, you buy it.” The state may not want to brook local opposition. Experience to date has shown how state policy can be frustrated by local recalcitrance.

On the other hand, those with a stake in the future of MPS are not only residents of Milwaukee.  Children at failing schools often end up consuming government resources funded by the state through welfare, Medicaid, and incarceration.  Moreover, even if Milwaukee residents were satisfied with MPS’ results, nearly $8,000 per student in Milwaukee comes from the state of Wisconsin.  An argument, therefore, can be made that if the state legislature – democratically elected itself – wants to hold MPS accountable for their poor results, it has a legitimate financial and economic interest in doing so.

Is replicating the successes in New Orleans feasible?  In the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – displacing thousands of children and destroying buildings, New Orleans public schools was forced to start over.  The RSD enabled it to do so with new teachers, leadership, and a different collection of students.  The Superintendent of the RSD was forced to create turnaround plans for the schools in the district.  One must wonder whether the hurricane was the impetus for such radical reform – rather than policy itself – and, therefore, the RSD model will be hard to replicate.  Indeed, other similar efforts in cities like Memphis have not yielded as much success.

But as tens of thousands of children continue through the hopeless cycle of poverty, one could make that Milwaukee is suffering a disaster of its own that demands similarly drastic reform.

[1] Much of the information here comes from Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Bulletin 129:The Recovery School District.  http://bese.louisiana.gov/docs/bese-bulletins/bulletin-129—the-recovery-school-district-(28v145-rev-2012-sep).doc?sfvrsn=2

[2] Much of the information in this paragraph comes from http://publicimpact.com/creating-a-statewide-turnaround-district-lessons-from-tennessee/


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