It’s time for anti-MPS lawmakers to acknowledge reality

The big Wisconsin education news of last week was Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers announcement that, based on district report cards for the 2015-16 school year, neither the Milwaukee Public Schools nor any other district would be eligible for participation in the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.

I’m not going to belabor, again, what’s wrong with OSPP and the law that mandated it; you can click on the previous link and get to just about everything I have written on the OSPP. I will just say that this is good news. The law was a bad law, written poorly, completely unfunded and predicated on the fallacious idea that student achievement problems in MPS result solely from whose name is on the letterhead. It spawned 18 months of bitter, nasty fighting and recrimination among the community, poisoning the atmosphere for students.

What is most encouraging about the no-OSPP news is why MPS is no longer eligible. The law allows for takeovers of failing schools in districts that have themselves been on the state’s failing list for two years running. According to the state, MPS is no longer a failing district.

In other words – and this, to me, is supremely powerful – the OSPP was defeated not because of fighting among adults but rather improvements in student growth and achievement.

I’ll repeat that, because I don’t think it was said often enough in the last week: The OSPP is dead not because of community action or the County Executive’s inaction or threats of lawsuits, but because Milwaukee’s students are doing tangibly better today than in past years.

The usual disclaimers apply: This change in status does not mean that MPS is perfect and all efforts to improve the quality of life and education for its children should end. The work is ongoing and unfinished. The status quo is not acceptable.

Additional disclaimers also apply: Student achievement was not the sole reason why MPS is no longer a failing district; the formula for determining failure has also changed. The state Department of Public Instruction now gives credit not merely for meeting performance targets but also for student growth. For example, if a student starts sixth grade reading at a third grade level but finishes the year reading at a fifth grade level, a school or a district would get points for helping that student catch up, even if that student is still below grade level.

Still, the change in designation for MPS as a whole suggests two things. One, we now have better evidence that the disdain with which critics speak of MPS is much more clearly undeserved. Two, anti-MPS lawmakers would better serve our children by working with MPS on its internal reforms rather than against MPS.

I’ll elaborate on both points.

As I said in my most recent Bay View Compass column, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the direction MPS is headed, not least the relentless cheerleading of Superintendent Darienne Driver. Even the OSPP’s authors seem to agree that Driver is a powerhouse; in their public comments about how to respond the law’s apparent death, Rep. Dale Kooyenga floated the idea of giving Driver more power.

As much I appreciate Driver’s leadership, this is a dumb idea and emblematic of the aforementioned disdain lawmakers seem to have for MPS and its leaders. Kooyenga seems to think that Driver could do so much more if only she were freed from the albatross that is the Milwaukee Board of School Directors.

Driver is wisely and vocally resisting that idea. The OSPP law actually granted her wide authority, but she did not invoke it in the time that the law was applicable to the district, and she does not want to hurt the good working relationship she has with the Board.

That relationship – and the improved relationship between the Board and the district’s teachers union – is a big part of why I’m bullish about MPS right now. Everyone in the district, from the classroom to the Board to central office, seems to be on the same page for the first time in my 20 or so years in this city.

Yet lawmakers and critics have consistently insisted that the stodgy old Board, or the selfish jerks in the union, are huge drags on MPS achievement. That may have been the case in the past, but it is simply not true now.

Plus there’s this sweet irony: MPS critics’ fears about exposing low-performing voucher schools contributed to the death of the OSPP.

The revised school and district report cards are as they are now largely because of the school-voucher lobby. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel even quoted Jim Bender, president of the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, as saying MPS is “getting credit in the report cards for student growth, which they weren’t getting in previous years.”

Bender and his allies pushed for the changes because for the first time, when school and district report cards are released next month, voucher schools will be among them. The state legislature for many years refused to listen to public school advocates who wanted districts like MPS, with high levels of poor, special needs and English language learning students among its ranks, to be recognized for growth among those hard-to-educate groups. But it was not until the legislators’ friends (and donors) faced potentially embarrassing report cards that the law changed.

Bender’s argument – that voucher schools are often teaching students who didn’t find success in traditional public schools – makes a lot of sense. But why shouldn’t public schools be recognized for getting growth out of those same students? Milwaukee’s voucher schools, if they were a single school district, would qualify for the OSPP the same as MPS. Yet the law’s authors suggested it should be voucher operators selected to takeover OSPP schools and constantly praise voucher schools whose achievement is no better than in MPS.

In short, it’s past time for legislators to stop hating on MPS. Now is the time to step up support.

As an educator, I do not expect my students to get better at a task or skill if I threaten or disparage them. If I expect improvement, I have to figure out where they need support and, you know, support them.

The OSPP, like a host of other long-proposed but never-implemented measures aimed at improving school “accountability,” was designed to hurt MPS. The authors will claim differently – that putting schools under the control of a non-MPS operator is designed to help the students – but the primary effect of the law is overwhelmingly to strip MPS of students, real estate, resources and income. That is punitive.

When the first appointed OSPP commissioner proposed a plan that would keep students and funding within MPS while implementing a proven model with more supports for students, the law’s authors and conservative legal groups flipped out. For them, hacking away at MPS was more important than a positive, collaborative environment centered on doing what’s best for children.

When those criticisms proved to be the proverbial straw that forced the camel to resign, the result was more outrage and threats to break up MPS or slash its funding until it surrendered the schools and slashed its own funding.

Thankfully, the news about MPS’ improved rating has seemed to dampen enthusiasm for budget cuts or other drastic measures. But it hasn’t turned legislators off to the idea of carving away at MPS. Kooyenga’s co-author, Sen. Alberta Darling, has suggested there may be an amended OSPP next year that would still force MPS to hand over schools, property and funds to outside operators.

On the other hand, the Journal Sentinel did report that there might be state support coming for community schools, one of the things MPS leaders and teachers are most excited about.

Community schools, like the district’s Turnaround Arts program at the elementary level and ProStart culinary arts program at the high school level, are so new they have not yet been factored into school achievement. Nor has the district’s recent expansion of Montessori and language immersion programs, both programs with strong records of success. In other words, there is likely to be greater success with each successive report card release.

Again, I do not think MPS is done improving, and I know I personally am not resting on any laurels. I don’t think Driver, the Board or the union are, either, and that’s why they’re teaming up on many initiatives, like community schools.

Further threats or actions to punish schools not only won’t work, they will make MPS’s critics sound even further out of touch and clarify that their goal is not student achievement, but a dead MPS. Legislators and other critics should rather sign on as partners on those initiatives and other good ideas for boosting MPS success – like granting us flexibility on the school calendar or boosting funding for librarians, guidance counselors and technical education.

It’s time to recognize reality, in other words, and join MPS on this journey of improvement.

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