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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Initial reactions to MPS budget audit, takeover talks

by folkbum

As my post below implies, I am aware of the state/city audit of the Milwaukee Public Schools. But because the report was released at 9AM today, and I have been, you know, working, I have not read all 100 pages (.pdf) or so. However, I have some initial reactions based on the news stories and the press releases that followed.

It sounds to me like the report recommends a bunch of nibbles and one big bite to save the district something like 8% of its budget. No doubt 8%--about $103 million--is a significant chunk of change, especially when you think about compounding it for years hence. On the other hand, the audit isn't suggesting any kind of grand silver silver bullet that will resolve the intractable issue of MPS's long-term fiscal health. Taking the MPS budget from $1.2 billion to $1.1 billion is not any kind of miracle; and given that some of the initial discussion is about redirecting those dollars to other places ($103 million buys something like a million fancy pencil sharpeners, apparently), there will continue to be the same budget pressures as always.

And a lot of the nibbles are actually projects underway at MPS. The district has a dozen or so properties up for sale and they're also slashing busing options for students--much to the chagrin of parents, by the way. Another recommendation seems to be re-centralizing purchasing, which was de-centralized a decade ago on the theory that schools would spend less if they were responsible for finding their own vendors and so forth. Instead, the district lost the economies of scale it used to achieve.

Yet another nibble is to change all schools over to pre-packaged school lunches. This is one of those things where clearly people are prioritizing budget over the best interests of the kids. Local, freshly prepared food is exponentially better for kids than frozen and reheated instameals, if more expensive. And other districts trying this exact solution are finding resistance from parents.

The big bite, of course, is the sacred cow/ favorite target of employee benefits. The report seems to estimate about $45 million in savings by eliminating family-supporting jobs, cutting employee hours to start walmarting (i.e., forcing our employees onto the public dole), and making MPS teachers' insurance option the least appealing in the metro area.

Essentially, any cost-saving measures have to be weighed against what they might do to the welfare of the kids. This is especially true of anything like a state or city takeover. The governor and the mayor insist that's not on the horizon (.pdf) (it's not a "takeover in disguise" (.pdf)), but Bob Donovan didn't wait until the mimeo sheets were even dry before blasting out a press release (.pdf) insisting on a city takeover. (Donovan didn't even wait to go through his office to do it; a quick once-over by the staff might have kept the insults to a minimum.)

But a study (.pdf) out yesterday from EPIC, the Education and the Public Interest Center, suggests that takeovers, like all the other possible "restructuring" efforts required under No Child Left Behind, has no effect on achievement. Here's a bit from the press release that sums it up:
The brief reviews the existing body of research on each of the five sanction options and finds that "there is little or no evidence to suggest that any of these options delivers the promised improvements in academic achievement."

In particular, Mathis finds:
  • Both state takeovers and private management of schools by companies known as Education Management Organizations are rare, although both have been the subject of intense media publicity when they do occur. There exists no reliable evidence that either approach has improved achievement as measured by standardized test scores. [. . .]
Mathis concludes: "Given that these approaches are being proposed for the nation's most troubled schools, the solutions [currently set forth by NCLB] are likely to be woefully inadequate." Furthermore, states and districts alike simply lack the necessary capacity to comprehensively implement such sweeping remedies as contemplated by the NCLB sanction provisions.

In light of such findings, Mathis recommends against relying on restructuring sanctions to promote school improvement. He also recommends more rigorous and detailed research into certain reform measures assumed to be "best practices," but that have not been adequately studied; that policymakers provide states with adequate technical assistance to implement, support, and sustain school improvements; and that policymakers support a range of measures that have been demonstrated to lift achievement, including early education, longer school years and days, smaller school communities, and others.
The study walks through each of the prescribed punitive restructuring methods and finds that each is lacking, and some incredibly disruptive at the transition--often depressing scores even further.

This is on top of the recent report (.pdf) from the Public Policy Forum that also said that municipal takeovers are also at best a mixed bag. Donovan and others like him eager to wrest control of the district from the voters should think twice about what effects that would really have.

Additional info at BloggingMPS.

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