Means-Abele “Reform” Plan Desperately Clings to Failed Status Quo

Weak plan and public statements make it clear that neither is serious about reforming Milwaukee schools

June 15, 2016

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Don’t blame us. That was the message from Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) Commissioner Demond Means to a crowd of about 70 people in an inner-city church basement last Thursday. Means even said the legislature intentionally chose Abele because the county is an instrument of state government and Abele could not refuse.

“The designation of the county executive was really purposeful,” Means said in his opening remarks. “Because the county is an extension of state government.”

Wigderson on Abele Means OSPP.png

Abele and Means explained that their purpose in designing the OSPP proposal to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was to reduce any possible “harm” to the school district.

“Is it the way I would have designed it? No, it isn’t. It is, though, the law, and this represents what we think is a way of implementing the law, because we do have to do that,” Abele said. “That it is the most sort-of pro-MPS, least-damaging, that we also think we can maybe we can do some good, that we could come up with.”

Their plan, Means explained, will only be for one school and has five components:

  1. They are seeking to partner with Milwaukee Public Schools instead of finding a “charter management operator” as called for in the legislation.
  2. They are going to retain the MPS teachers. “We want to keep every single staff member who has a job,” Means said.
  3. The school will go back to MPS control after the five-years of OSPP.
  4. The per-pupil amount will also go back to MPS. Any gap will be filled through fundraising.
  5. They will also make sure MPS retains oversight of the OSPP school through quarterly meetings with the MPS school board. They will also place the board member for the region of the school, the regional superintendent and the chief innovation officer on the governance council for the OSPP school.

“The county executive and I were trying to avoid another bad implementation of bad law,” Means said. “We’re trying to find a way to make this a reasonable interpretation of a law, that again, we would have preferred not to have happen and we wouldn’t have drafted it the way that it is.”

Later during the question and answer period, Means assured the audience that OSPP would not lead to any privately operated charter schools. Means would also keep the student disciplinary policy the same as MPS.

In other words, the OSPP would essentially remain an MPS school, just run by an administrator from the Mequon School District. The question is, what has the legislature gained?

After all, the idea was to carve out of the existing MPS school district a number of schools that were failing and turn them around. What Means and Abele have proposed only affects one school. In addition, they would keep the same teachers with the same unions in the same classrooms.

The only thing to be gained at this one school is the ability of Milwaukee County to work with state agencies to bring more social services direct to students at the school. However, MPS is already experimenting with that through their community schools initiative with the United Way. The county and the state could already work within that program to bring more wraparound services to an inner-city school if that was all that was needed to turn around educational outcomes.

What is lost is an opportunity to take failing schools out from under MPS control where clearly continuing the same policies with the same teachers has not worked. Recent research by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty shows the more independent a charter school is from MPS control, the more “bang for the buck” for taxpayers when it comes to educational improvement.

We won’t have that independence with the OSPP school, still yet to be selected by Means and Abele while MPS drags its feet. Instead, Means and Abele on Thursday night made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with independent charter schools.

Actually, Abele and Means made it clear they wanted nothing to do with OSPP. Judging from their statements Thursday night, they are willing to do everything they can to undermine the legislature’s intentions in creating the law.

At a recent debate on education, state Rep. Dale Kooyenga said that if the OSPP failed he would be willing to go back to the legislature to try again to reform MPS schools. Given his unwilling partners to whom he handed the keys to OSPP, Kooyenga and the legislature may have to wipe the blackboard clean and start again.