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

Walker Talks Potential MPS 'Takeover,' Education Expert Says Easier Said Than Done

Michelle Maternowski

Governor Scott Walker has started another conversation about a potential shake-up of Milwaukee Public Schools. There's been three proposed MPS "takeovers" over the last 20 years.

During an interview on Channel 12's UpFront with Mike Gousha, Walker was asked about the MPS's challenges, such as budget constraints and teachers’ dissatisfaction. The governor replied that it may be necessary to split up the district or take other significant measures.

Although this isn’t the first time an elected official has discussed tinkering with the district, experts say making big changes is easier said than done.

In the interview, Gov. Walker insisted cuts in state funding aren’t to blame for MPS’s fiscal woes. He says other school districts have found ways to manage their budgets effectively.

Walker said if MPS isn’t able to follow suit, the problem might be leadership of the large district - and a solution could involve splitting it into smaller pieces.

The governor’s comments follow previous efforts to overhaul MPS – such as an attempted mayoral takeover in 2009 and more recently, the controversial Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.

State Representative Dale Kooyenga was co-author of the plan put into place several years ago, after dozens of schools received failing grades. “We cannot accept the status quo, and we need to be open to change,” he said.

The Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, or OSPP, created a new governance structure for the lowest-performing schools. Many people opposed the program, including MPS, which fought it.

The OSPP ran into other problems too, such as the resignation of the appointed commissioner, Demond Means.

Then late in 2016, MPS learned it was safe from the partial takeover because the district no longer was in the bottom category in the state school report card.

The OSPP was one of three proposed “takeovers” in the last 20 years, Alan Borsuk explains. He a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University.

Borsuk says since those endeavors didn’t produce results, the lesson is that it’s not so easy to do. “It’s easy to say, 'Let’s shake things up'” or even, 'Let’s divide up the district. Let’s change boundaries. Let’s change governance.' Actually, doing it is really complicated.”

Why is it so complicated? Borsuk says because there’s no way to “unscramble an egg.” That egg, he says, is the whole MPS enrollment picture – it includes traditional public schools, school choice, and the existence of dozens of private and charter schools.

Borsuk adds that other complications would arise if MPS were split into several districts. “How do you break up the business side? How do you break up enrollment? How do you break up employment for teachers? Who goes where? People in the city, as much as MPS and all the schools have serious issues, like having choice. It’d be very unpopular politically to restrict people’s choices which would inevitably happen if you broke the district up into sections."

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association released a statement after Gov. Walker suggested splitting up MPS:

“Talk of shaking things up, meaning takeovers, breaking up the district, and the loss of public control is just another threat to destroy our public schools. The continued attempts to strip the people of Milwaukee of their public schools, of their right to a free and fully funded education, is something governor walker seems to take joy in.”

Meanwhile, MPS also responded to Walker’s mention of a possible MPS overhaul.

In a statement, spokeswoman Denise Callaway said the district is showing signs of progress: "More students are graduating, literacy rates are up for early learners, and more students are taking college-level classes than ever before.”

Callaway said that’s against a backdrop of problems outside of the district’s control, such as “general state aid that is virtually stagnant compared to the cost of living index” and a state revenue limit policy that puts MPS at a disadvantage, compared to districts that have “fewer poor students, English language learners, and special needs students.” 

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