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Legislative Republicans recently proposed a dramatic solution to the critical outcomes problem of chronically poor student in Milwaukee Public Schools. While the diagnosis is right, the prescription – breaking the district into several smaller ones – is wrong. Significant change is surely needed, but this plan will make a bad situation worse.
Public education in Milwaukee is fragmented and broken. Fewer than one in ten students are meeting grade level expectations. Parents and families have a difficult time navigating school selection and enrollment among the three different operating sectors (MPS, public charter schools and private schools) schools with public funds.
It has proven impossible for educators and policymakers to align on a coherent and consistent approach to improving student outcomes across the city. Milwaukee needs transformational change in K-12 education, and leaders that put students and families first and refuse to accept a failing status quo.
That said, in addressing the real and dire challenges facing Milwaukee’s students and schools, we should be mindful of every doctor’s axiomatic oath: “First, do no harm.” The cure for what ails MPS cannot be worse than the disease – and we are concerned that the proposal from Sen. Alberta Darling, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt and others, while laudable in its intentions, has the real potential to make an already sick patient even worse in four key ways:
1. Worse economic and racial segregation
There’s simply no way to dissolve MPS that doesn’t result in even more Milwaukee students attending racially and economically segregated schools. Segregation in Milwaukee’s housing and schools remains pervasive. to a recent UW-Milwaukee study, Milwaukee’s Black students attend the most hyper-segregated schools in the nation, with racial segregation levels comparable to the 1960s. Wealth and opportunity are not equitably distributed in our city and locking students out of choices by locking them into a smaller school district only makes this problem worse.
2. Cuts to state and federal funding
An MPS breakup will mean the city overall receives less education funding from both federal and state sources — perhaps as much as 10-15% less, because of how the complex funding formulas take into account both the size of the district and the proportion of students from low-income households. The evidence is clear that money does matter for student outcomes. Even with the influx of COVID-19 recovery funding, schools of all types across the city still face long-term, structural budget challenges.
3. Even more bureaucratic bloat
By creating up to eight new school districts, this proposal would result in an even more bloated, fragmented set of bureaucracies for students, families and educators. Under this legislation, we could have up to 56 new elected school board members, eight new Superintendents and central offices and a myriad of overlapping and redundant district functions. Right now, families seeking to enroll their students in school face a confusing array of timelines, deadlines and requirements. Imagine adding up to eight more sets of requirements for them to figure out. And that’s to say nothing of the costs of these new, redundant bureaucracies, which will almost certainly mean higher taxes on Milwaukee residents.
4. Even more fragmented governance and diffused accountability
This proposal only exacerbates what is already a core challenge to improving outcomes for Milwaukee’s students: a fragmented and broken governance system, one that’s failed to set a vision or implement a strategy for citywide, cross-sector improvement. While proponents of an MPS breakup argue that smaller districts will be more accountable, there is no research basis showing smaller districts are better able to turn around or close persistently failing schools.
To summarize: There are good reasons the idea of breaking up MPS has been around for half a century but has never been implemented – and why no other city or state in the country has tried to do something similar to this proposal.
We know the status quo is failing Milwaukee’s students and families. Beyond the academic data, polling conducted by City Forward Collective shows only a quarter of respondents believe our city’s schools are good or excellent, and only 22 percent believe the current system works for kids. Moreover, families are voting with their feet – 96% of Milwaukee’s population loss in the 2020 Census can be attributed to a decline in children under age 18, including more than 13,000 fewer Black children.
While the MPS breakup isn’t the right answer, we as a city can’t just continue doing what hasn’t been working. This proposal should be a call to action for Milwaukee’s leadership – beginning with the next mayor – that the city needs to step up to this challenge. Milwaukee needs inclusive, fresh-thinking and bold action to transform Milwaukee’s education system into one where all students, and all schools, can thrive.
Isral DeBruin, Dr. Patricia Hoben and Colleston Morgan are on the staff of City Forward Collectivea Milwaukee nonprofit dedicated to eliminating inequities in education and ensuring every child has the opportunity to attend a high-quality school.