February 19, 2014
by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst
Gregory Thornton is done with Milwaukee Public Schools. The Superintendent of Wisconsin’s largest school district is on to a new challenge – operating Baltimore Public Schools as their CEO.
Thornton’s move will send MPS back to the drawing board four years after hiring the administrator from the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania. His tenure lasted approximately half the time of his predecessor, William Andrekopoulos. For Thornton, with Act 10 and plenty of unrest revolving around the city’s public schools, it must have seemed much longer.
The former MPS head’s legacy will not be measured by time. Instead, it will be based on whether or not he was able to lead the district up from its status as one of Wisconsin’s most troubled districts. Looking at the city’s educational achievement scores, it is unclear whether the city will hold Baltimore’s new educational CEO in high regard.
Milwaukee experienced limited growth during Thornton’s tenure. The city’s reading scores have risen slowly and despite a dip in 2011-2012, four-year graduation rates are still showing improvement. Other areas, like the district’s attendance rate for students and its NAEP scores, otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card, have all shown slight, but inconsistent, improvements over that span.
However, that trend didn’t carry over to areas like the city’s ACT and WSAS math scores – although the drop in ACT averages could be related to an explosion in students taking the standardized tests in the city’s high schools
. Those areas, according to their most recent published records, lag behind where the district stood in 2009 before Thornton took the reins.
Thornton can also take credit for rising graduation rates amongst minority students and pupils from economically disadvantaged families. His tenure in Milwaukee also saw the achievement gap between students of different races shrink.
Superintendent Thornton’s legacy in Milwaukee extends beyond the performance of his schools and students. He will also be remembered for being at the helm during the tumultuous days of Act 10, where his district was forced to make significant cuts in lieu of reopening a contract they had signed in 2010 in advance of Scott Walker’s election as governor. The following year, Milwaukee faced a double-shot of expiring federal stimulus funding on top of a state aid reduction that was meant to be backfilled by employee contributions to health care and pension programs.
Thornton advised the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association to reopen their contract, a move that would have made those employees subject to Act 10’s restrictions and employee contributions but also would have saved up to 198 jobs. However, the union voted that move down, saying that “enough is enough” despite the potentially job-saving funding that was at risk. Thornton, in a prepared statement, decried that vote as “deeply disappointing.”
As a result, Milwaukee was one of just three of Wisconsin’s largest districts who chose cuts over concessions. The district sent layoff notices to 354 teachers that summer.
Thornton did make an attempt to save the district money by outsourcing its food service staff during his tenure, but it was also turned down by the school board. The district’s food service system spent more than $42 million in the 2010-11 school year and Thornton urged for other options because of financial instability in the program.
Milwaukee is set for more unrest in 2014 as programs aimed at creating a system for accountability at all public schools have been making their way through the Assembly and Senate Education Committees this spring. Those programs are aimed at identifying and rebuilding the state’s lowest-performing public schools – institutions that are overwhelmingly concentrated in Milwaukee.
Thornton lost some local support when he pitched a plan that would turn consistently failing schools over to high-performing charter authorizers. His proposal was shot down and amended by the district’s school board to remove charter schools from having any authority in rebuilding failing schools. Now, less than a month after that meeting, MPS will have to deal with pending accountability programs without their Superintendent.
Gregory Thornton helped glean some modest improvements in his four years in Milwaukee, but his power to make sweeping changes was ultimately limited. He was forced to deal with obstacles from the state government, city councils, and his own teachers’ union. Ultimately, those forces sapped the ambition that he showed in his first few months on the job. As a result, Milwaukee improved under his watch – but not significantly, and not nearly as much as many, including Thornton himself, would have liked.