Alan Borsuk this morning blogs a question about the Milwaukee Public Schools:
Maybe it's worthwhile to single out for further discussion comments by State Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) and busines leader Sheldon Lubar from a roundtable discussion several days ago hosted by the Editorial Board of the Journal Sentinel. [. . .] The discussion turned quickly to the need for higher levels of educational success in Milwaukee.I don't know what community leaders would say. So far, no one has commented on that post to suggest what they would say. But I know what I would say.
Fields said: "We all agree that it should be about valuing kids, it should be about the child's education. But once we leave here, we get into these political battles between opponents, but everybody's saying it's about the kids, it's about the kids. But if I go back and say, 'Listen, we need to break up MPS; we need to make it smaller,' I'll get raked over the coals for saying something like that, even though we all know at this table that's probably the best idea. . . . Let's quit the talking, and let's just figure out the solution."
Lubar responded, "Jason, you're on the same page I'm on. I would love it if Mayor Barrett would request the governor, make a request and say, please, I want to take over the authority for running the public schools system so it isn't run for the teachers, and it isn't run for political reasons, and we do break it down into manageable systems, and delegate down to the principal." [. . .]
Is Fields right? If they were being candid and setting aside politics, would community leaders agree that MPS ought to be broken up?
No.Here's the biggest problem with making MPS smaller: You can cut it into as many pieces as you want--two, three, eight, forty-two--but you'll continue to run into the same problem. There will be one district that includes some near-north side neighborhoods (like the 53206 zip code, which Gretchen Schuldt wrote about here), and that district will take over MPS's spot as the worst district in the state. The factors that make MPS a poor-performing district almost exclusively exist outside of the school system itself.
Additionally, slicing the district into bite-sized pieces would cut students off from specialty programs at schools like Bradley Tech, School of the Arts, Rufus King, and Riverside. (You could make Riverside's attendance area its own district, among the East Side-UWM neighborhoods, and it would be among the best districts in the state.) The likely demise of the Chapter 220 program--in some recent constitutional and budgetary doubt--would make it almost impossible for poor students to move across districts to those schools. (Chapter 220 paid for transportation; inter-district choice does not.)
No, the answer is not smaller. The answer is bigger.
This is not a a new idea. Here's what I wrote 18 months ago:
What if we merge MPS and the surrounding public school districts into one? I'm not necessarily envisioning a five-county-sized district, but, with the end of transfer limits, as noted above, we almost have one without a merger by default. Codifying it, though, would provide exactly the kick in the pants needed to bring the region on board for really, seriously, and comprehensively addressing the problems that MPS's test scores and other performance measures highlight.One of the great truisms of the "free market" is that bigger is better. You never hear about McDonald's deciding to spin off its Idaho division, for example. No; instead, you only hear about Sirius and XM merging, AirTran taking over Midwest--bigger is better. Not perfect, mind you, but generations of free-market businesspeople may be onto something.
Think about it: How is your average North Shore resident going to feel when suddenly his child is no longer attending one of the top districts in the state, but one that, when you combine performance data for all the schools now in it, is no better than fair-to-middlin'? How likely is it that high-and-mighty radio personalities or bloggers will look down their noses anymore when the district their children attend school in has a suddenly mediocre graduation rate? It will certainly put things into sharper focus for those who, having been glad to be on the outside offering criticism, find themselves on the inside having to make the tough choices.
And the benefits would exist across the spectrum: Suburban students looking for an International Baccalaureate program, for example, now have access to several; sports programs can develop even greater dynasties; that Gates money can be shared outside of city boundaries.
Think of it: Those surburban districts must be doing something right. They provide better results, often cheaper. If a business were doing that--offering better results cheaper than their competitors--they'd be in a good position for a takeover. So why not try some consolodation?
There are benefits beyond what I outlined last year, including money to be saved on services right now that are being duplicated. Making a number of smaller Milwaukee districts all responsible for the variety of kinds of services that schools must provide would be like throwing money into the wind.
So that's my answer: Let's aim instead for something like a Milwaukee County Public Schools. I think the efficencies, the accumulated apparent expertise of the suburban districts, and the kind of commitment it would (I hope) create among the suburban parents and legislators all make good reasons to consider the idea. I don't have the kind of research monkeys it would take to put all of the various factors into perspective. But I'm sure the idea has to be feasible and perhaps it would even make more sense if we had all the numbers in front of us.
But for now, that's my answer. MPS needs to be bigger, not smaller. Smaller is, in fact, probably the worst way to go.