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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A radical idea for Milwaukee's schools

I have said, repeatedly, that the solution to the myriad challenges facing the Milwaukee Public Schools does not lie in nibbling around the edges. "Small schools," K-8 schools, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program--all of these things are little more than fixing up the curtains on a condemned house: You can make parts of it pretty but the underlying structure is still dangerous.

So, thinking about a few news stories and whatnot from the last few weeks, I have an idea. I need to build up to it, though.

First, our new friend Seth comments on the end of a particular era:
The Journal-Sentinel reports today that an eight-year-old provision in Wisconsin's open enrollment program will end after this school year.

This provision, which has been around since open enrollment began in 1998, allows a school district to limit the number of students who transfer out of its district under the open enrollment policy. Since each time a student leaves a district the state aid provided to that district decreases, the open enrollment policy could actually work to shut down certain school districts unless limits on how many students could leave the district are in place. The absence of the provision for the 2006-2007 school year threatens the financial stability of at least 10 rural school districts, according to the JS report.
Seth goes on to opine that relying on the free market as a matter of government policy is short-sighted and inevitably creates whole classes of those shut out of the market.

But for our purposes here, let's keep this in mind, that there are no longer any barriers--at least on the from end--to students moving between school districts.

Then there's this story, from the other day. The WPRI has done one of its sky-is-falling reports (.pdf) about public schools. From the news story:
The gap between Wisconsin's most successful and least successful high schools is growing, and economics and race are the factors that match up most closely with the gap, a new study concludes.

In an analysis issued by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Phil McDade, a former education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, focused on school districts where the scores of 10th-graders on the state's standardized tests were in the top 10% and the bottom 10% overall in the 1996-'97 and 2003-'04 school years.

He concluded that the scores, across all the subjects tested by the state, indicated that the top schools were pulling away from the middle of the pack, while the bottom schools were falling further behind.

He calculated that in the earlier year, the top districts scored 10.7% above the state average, but in the later year, they were 21.3% above the average. For schools in the bottom 10%, the average was 13.7% below the state average in 1996-'97 and 17.3% below the average in 2003-'04.

The result pointed to "a growing gap between the performance of top- and bottom-tier high schools . . . during a time when the spending gap between these two groups of schools remained relatively constant," McDade said. "The growing performance gap is largely influenced by socioeconomic factors beyond the influence of schools," McDade said. "Property wealth, poverty and race were found to affect student performance."
Again, confirming what I firmly believe: The community surrounding the schools is as or more important than what goes on in the schools. As I have said before, we in the public schools can and do work small miracles every day. But there is no way that we can make up for poverty, unemployment, high mobility, low property values in every student, every time, all the time. And that seems to be true across the state, not just in Milwaukee. As Paul Soglin put it today, there are
underlying social conditions, such as poverty, incidence of two-parent families, number of children for whom English is a second language, and the number of special education students.   This is an important omission because we know that family condition is the strongest predictor of a child’s success in school.  Schools have an important effect; however, family (especially the mother’s level of education) has a greater influence than anything done by the school.
The third piece comes to us by way of the Herbertly-named Amtal Rule:
Southeastern Wisconsin will prosper or decline as a region.  I'm betting on the former and the Public Policy Forum's latest research (pdf) is reason for hope.  A survey of 600 people from throughout region reveals some interesting opportunities and challenges [. . .]. Education ranks among the top concerns of people in the region.  But there is a disconnect between recognition of a priority and a willingness to solve a problem regionally--especially on education. [. . .]

A big part of the region's future workforce come from the City of Milwaukee but the region has not sought to invest in educating that workforce.  MPS is seen as a "Milwaukee problem" that suburban counties don't want a part of.  But a UWM study indicates the health of MPS schools will determine whether the region grows (pdf):
The future strength of the Milwaukee area labor force lies in large part with its minority populations. Metro Milwaukee has the youngest African American population among the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. Its Asian population is 4th youngest and its Latino population is 9th youngest. By contrast, metro Milwaukee’s white population is older than most metro areas. The white population entering the labor force has declined, while baby boomers are retiring.
The region needs to invest time, money and energy into strengthening MPS.
He's absolutely right; as much as I make fun of Alberta Darling's concern over the inner workings of the Milwaukee Public Schools when she, at best, represents only a spare handful of its students, her meddling is not completely out of line. I still find it amusing that the Milwaukee Caucus and the 'burb caucus are so often diametrically opposed, though.

The final piece of our puzzle comes in the form of that well-meaning but really left-fieldish proposal from Milwaukee Rep. Sheldon Wasserman to cut the number of counties in Wisconsin by a factor of four. "In this time of fewer resources," he concludes, "we cannot afford to keep dumping money into an old and inefficient system."

So by now I'm sure you see it coming: 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.

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.

I recognize that it's less likely to happen than, say, George W. Bush admitting to a mistake. But it's something to consider. It certainly is not nibbling around the edges.

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