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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Instead of Private Groups, MPS May Help Oversee Opportunity Schools

Rachel Morello
Demond Means, commissioner of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program

We now know more about what the Milwaukee county executive and his designee plan to do with failing MPS schools.

State legislation created the Milwaukee Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, or OSPP, and it charges program leaders with turning around struggling district schools.

County Executive Chris Abele asked Mequon-Thiensville superintendent Demond Means to serve as OSPP commissioner, and the law requires him to find operators for failing schools. To most people, it may sound as if state leaders want him to hand over troubled city schools to private charter school organizations.

But, the commissioner has a different kind of arrangement in mind.

Means says he wants to give MPS some ownership over reforming its most troubled schools. He wants to work with the district.

“It would be quite ironic for the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, not to partner with our most important stakeholder, which is Milwaukee Public Schools,” Means says.

County Executive Abele’s office has just turned the proposal over to the MPS board. He calls the plan the best case scenario under the OSPP guidelines.

Credit Rachel Morello
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

  “It accomplishes the goal of an avenue for meaningful, productive change and, I think, has the potential to take off the table the sort of ‘dark cloud’ of what people have speculated, that this is going to be some roundabout effort to blow up MPS,” Abele explains.

MPS already has contracts like the one Abele and Means are proposing for so-called “instrumentality charter schools.” They are schools authorized and operated by public school districts, but given some freedom in how they operate. 

It’s complicated.

“The district is responsible for staffing the school, employing the staff and managing the programs,” explains Sean Roberts, executive director of the group Milwaukee Charter School Advocates. “Whatever they do with their traditional district schools is what they do for their instrumentality charter schools.”

Unlike independent charters – which report to a private board of directors, instrumentality schools fall under the jurisdiction of the public school board. So if OSPP follows the instrumentality model, Demond Means would be accountable to the MPS board.

When it comes to staff, instrumentality charters use MPS employees rather than outside hires. And these schools retain public funding. So in essence, they operate a lot like regular MPS schools.

But, Roberts says, there is one hitch.

“We’ve seen that some instrumentality charter schools have chosen to just fold back into the district,” Roberts recounts.

Means and Abele say returning improved schools to MPS is the goal. Part of their proposal is to return sole management of OSPP schools to the district after 60 months. By then, they say the hope is that turnaround will have taken place.

MPS currently operates 6 instrumentality charter schools. And their most recent accountability ratings, according to data from annual Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report cards, show a broad range of student achievement and growth: 

Abele acknowledges that he and Means are doing a delicate dance. MPS advocates tend not to favor mandates from the Republican-controlled legislature that created OSPP.

The county exec hopes both sides see this proposal as a decent compromise.

“There’s some in the legislature that will feel this is not as aggressive as they wanted,” Abele says. “I was also always clear with them, I’m not going to do anything that’s going to hurt MPS.”

“There are certain things we did want to see, and I’m hoping they meet those objectives,” says Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who co-created OSPP.

“We shouldn’t have a school-centered approach, or a district-centered approach, or a union-centered approach to education. We should have a student-centered approach,” Kooyenga adds. “If that means some adults get their feathers ruffled, so be it. This is not about adults and their jobs. It’s about kids and providing a better opportunity for them to learn.”

Means told the MPS Board of Directors Thursday night that he had spoken to Kooyenga and his OSPP co-author, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). Means relayed that the lawmakers say they're not supportive of his proposed framework, but told him they trust his judgment.

The commissioner wants the upcoming school year to serve as a preparation year for OSPP, with the official launch taking hold in fall 2017. 

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