Milwaukee Public Schools has until June 23 to respond to an invitation from County Executive Chris Abele and his Opportunity Schools commissioner, Demond Means, to partner with them in a plan to turn around some of Milwaukee’s poorest performing schools.
Means has told MPS that rejecting the deal could force him to bring in an outside operator to run the schools as dictated in state law. But school reform advocates and observers in Milwaukee and around the country say that would be tougher than it sounds, and may not yield the results the Legislature envisioned when it created Means’ post.
Charter school operators generally prefer to create schools from the ground up, rather than take over existing operations, they said. In addition, the lack of seed money, the lower per-pupil funding for charter schools, Milwaukee’s competitive school market and highly charged political environment could make it difficult to attract quality operators.
“It’s much easier to build a school from scratch than to go in and work with an existing one,” said Sean Roberts, executive director of Milwaukee Charter Advocates.
“It’s challenging to recruit quality providers in general because of the disparity in funding” between traditional public schools and public charters, he said.
“Most of the good operators in town have their hands full,” said Ricardo Diaz of the United Community Center, which operates the Bruce Guadalupe charter schools.
“And, of course, we haven’t seen a great deal of success from national operators,” he said.
Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District, was appointed by Abele under a new law drafted last year by suburban Republican lawmakers in an effort to force improvements in Milwaukee Public Schools.
The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, adopted as part of the 2015-’17 budget, requires Means to take control of one to five schools annually and turn those over to competing operators.
Instead, he and Abele have proposed what they see as a compromise that would be less disruptive to the district. Under their plan, Means would operate the schools as a consultant to MPS, bringing in a number of agencies and organizations to improve staff training and offer wraparound services to students.
Teachers would keep their jobs and remain MPS employees. MPS would retain its per-pupil funding, albeit less than it gets currently if the schools operate as charters. And the MPS board would lose governance authority over the schools. The schools would revert to MPS control after five years if they meet improvement goals.
MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, who is in the midst of her own reform initiatives, said the district has been exchanging emails with Abele and Means to flesh out the details of the plan.
“It’s really around whether this is a value added for our children and families, and whether or not we have the appropriate infrastructure and resources to be able to implement this plan,” said Driver, who took issue with the characterization of the proposal as a “partnership.”
“We’re going through a number of elements, not just the plan, but the statute itself, making sure that we have all of those details ironed out,” Driver said. “The proposal has left the district with more questions than answers.”
Questions about plan
Among the questions that have circulated between the parties and within the broader education community:
■ What under the statute constitutes a “school” for purposes of a takeover? Does it give Means and Abele authority to take just the building? The furniture and resources inside?
■ Who will pay the start-up costs? MPS estimates it costs as much as $150,000 to launch a community school like the one envisioned by Abele and Means. The state law included no money for the turnaround district, and Abele has yet to attract outside funders, he said, because of the lack of certainty.
State aid to schools is paid quarterly beginning in October, so someone would have to front the enterprise. One likely candidate would be MPS, which would effectively be asked to do more with less, according to critics. MPS would be paid as much as $2,000 less per-student for the targeted schools, meaning it would need to tap funds meant for other schools to subsidize the turnaround schools over which it would have no control.
Abele said the wraparound services would be covered through federal reimbursements at no cost to MPS.
Some have speculated that Abele, a millionaire philanthropist, might tap his own coffers. He skirted the question Friday, saying “my intention is to continue to approach others.”
■ What happens if MPS says no? Means declined to speculate, saying he prefers to focus on hammering out a deal with MPS. But the law is clear: Abele and Means would need to attract another operator. Most independent charter schools in Milwaukee — Bruce Guadalupe and the Milwaukee College Preparatory schools, for example — are homegrown and run by people with deep ties in the community. But those often take years to plan and develop.
Few outside operators
Only four of the more than 20 independent charter schools are run by so-called charter-school operators. One of those, North Point Lighthouse, will close at the end of the school year. Only one of the four — Rocketship South Side Community Prep — has posted the type of academic results Means and Abele would likely tout.
Charter advocates say such operators have generally steered clear of Milwaukee for a host of reasons, including the disparity in per-pupil, and the stiff competition among providers in all three sectors — public, public charter and voucher schools.
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who co-authored the Opportunity Schools statute, said last week that he would encourage Abele and Means “to take a more aggressive approach” with MPS if it declines to take part. And he said he would continue to work to close the funding gap in an effort to better attract charter operators.
The Abele-Means plan has been derided as a takeover because it usurps the authority of the elected School Board. It’s viewed as an attack on the first black woman to lead the district, a Harvard-educated PhD who’s spent her career working in urban school districts.
Means feels heat
Much of the criticism has been directed at Means. Earlier this month, he was uninvited as commencement speaker by his alma mater, Milwaukee’s Riverside High School, after school staff objected.
And last week, a coalition of public school supporters delivered a letter to the Mequon-Thiensville School Board urging it to rein in its superintendent.
“What would you do if the superintendent of Mukwonago, Madison or some other place came here and said they were taking over Homestead High School and turning it over to a private operator?” Ingrid Walker Henry, co-chairman of Schools and Communities United, said, reading the letter aloud to the board.
“Dr. Means is participating in a coordinated attack on public education in Wisconsin and undermining our communities’ democratic rights,” she said.
Means apologized to his board because the protests had followed him to Mequon. And he objected to the assertion that he was out to undermine public education.
“I have spent my entire career advocating for public education,” he said in an email to the Journal Sentinel.
Some observers questioned whether either scenario — the MPS collaboration or bringing in outside providers — will yield the improvements the Legislature is hoping to see.
“They’ve picked up a rock that’s pretty heavy to lift,” said Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “If this were easy, it would already be done. Milwaukee wouldn’t have these low-performing schools if it were easy.”