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

Politics Played Heavily Into Milwaukee's Biggest Education Headlines of 2016

Rachel Morello
Protesters marched around the Milwaukee County Courthouse in June, to voice their opposition to the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. Opponents included MPS parent and teacher Monica Lopez, pictured center, shading her two young children.

Some of the biggest education stories in Milwaukee this year dealt with decisions elected leaders made in the statehouse.

2016 marked a year of uncharted territory for both public K-12 and higher education in Milwaukee.

Perhaps no group felt more on edge than supporters of Milwaukee Public Schools. Opponents spent the better half of the year protesting the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, or OSPP. It’s the turnaround program legislators approved, creating a new governance structure for underperforming public schools.

At the beginning of this year, one-third of MPS schools were under consideration for OSPP.

Credit Rachel Morello
Former OSPP commissioner Demond Means spoke at a Press Club event in January.

Lawmakers named Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to head the program here, and he enlisted Mequon-Thiensville superintendent Demond Means as OSPP Commissioner.

Means, an MPS grad, said he was up for the job.

“[Milwaukee] is, I believe, the epicenter for us to really roll up our sleeves and to make sure that we close the gap,” Means told reporters of his new position, at a Milwaukee Press Club event in January.

But, figuring out how to run OSPP was far from an easy task. 

Means and Abele faced countless community protests, including while the county executive was locked in a tough re-election battle. The duo tried to create a plan to work with MPS. Abele described the proposal as an attempt to walk political tightrope.

“It accomplishes an avenue for meaningful, productive change, and has the potential to take off the table what people have speculated -- that this is going to be some roundabout effort to blow up MPS,” Abele told WUWM.

But the district refused to take part.

The back-and-forth resumed, and by June, Demond Means had his fill. He resigned as OSPP commissioner, putting the pressure back on Abele to find a replacement.

He did not, and as the fall semester began, talk about the program died down.

Credit Rachel Morello
MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver

That’s when the news came: according to the latest round of state school report cards – which now better reflect factors such as poverty – MPS had improved, and none of its schools qualified for OSPP any longer.

“I really want to give credit to our educators, and to our community members who have been focused on improving student achievement since 1846, when this district was founded,” said MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, upon receiving the new report cards.

Driver has since introduced a slate of reforms she intends to keep pushing. Some of those ideas – including a new, district-wide calendar -- will go before the legislature in 2017, for approval.

2016 was equally as trying for higher education.

All year, University of Wisconsin leaders reeled from the effects of a legislative decision to slash $250 million from the UW System budget.

Individual school leaders, such as UW-Milwaukee’s Mark Mone,searched for ways to cut costs -- much to the chagrin of faculty, staff and students.

Credit Rachel Morello
UWM Chancellor Mark Mone announces a package of ideas to cut costs for the Milwaukee campus in March.

“We’ve been really looking at every possibility on our campus, how do we manage going forward for the future?” Mone told reporters at a budget meeting in March. “I think it’s something where we want to be as open and transparent [as possible]. And I think most people understand, what we’re facing is not something that we’d like to do.”

UW System schools started facing another challenge in March, when the UW Board of Regents weakened one of the strongest tenure systems in the country, in order to give campuses more flexibility.

The change gave outspoken researcher Sara Goldrick-Rab cause to leave the UW System.

“The reason that I went through what I went through to earn tenure was to in fact have that job security,” Rab said of her decision. “And when the conditions of my employment shifted overnight, I decided to leave.”

But after a year of worried anticipation, education advocates at all levels enter 2017 hearing that state leaders, including Governor Scott Walker, plan to funnel more money into Wisconsin’s schools.

“The legislature’s number one priority for this next session will be to increase funding of traditional public schools,” predicted legislator-turned-school voucher lobbyist Scott Jensen, at a Marquette University forum in late November. “They heard that, I think, loud and clear from people across the state of Wisconsin when they were campaigning this year.”

Regardless of what awaits them, public education leaders in Milwaukee may be ringing in the new year with a more hopeful mindset than in 2016.

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