Why Did Thornton Leave?
The loss of MPS superintendent raises troubling questions about public education in Milwaukee.
How much will Gregory Thornton be missed?
A while ago I had an off-the-record conversation with a well-connected Milwaukee Public Schools official who worked under nine different superintendents and ranked Thornton as the best.
Thornton, the source said, was by far the most conversant with the national education scene and trends in the field. “The vision of the district has gotten much more cosmopolitan under him. He’s better able to get outside funding. And he’s very hard driving. He can be hard to work for because he has very high expectations. And he gets into schools and classrooms to an extraordinary degree, he knows a lot about what is happening in the schools.”
As I’ve previously written, Thornton initiated a long list of positive changes for the district. So yes, it’s a big loss for Milwaukee.
And it prompts the obvious question? Why did he leave Milwaukee for a city, Baltimore, with about the same size school system and budget and a similar salary?
Thornton told the Baltimore media he wanted the opportunity to work in a city close to his childhood home of Philadelphia. Thornton got his bachelors in Temple University in Philly, his masters from Salisbury University in Maryland, was superintendent of the Chester Upland School District in Chester, Pa, a chief academic officer in Philadelphia and held a top school leadership jobs in Maryland. Before coming to Milwaukee, he had unsuccessfully applied for Baltimore superintendent job.
Thornton rented an apartment in Milwaukee and still owns a home in Pennsylvania. He had to be sold on taking the Milwaukee job. “He was reluctant to come in the first place,” says school board member Terry Falk.
It is not all that unusual for superintendents to serve as short a term as Thornton’s. Nationally the average tenure is 3.6 years, about what Thornton will serve and up from a decade ago when the average was a dismal 2.3 years.
But longtime reporter Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, who still writes a weekly column on education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, told WUWM-FM he believes Thornton was not happy in Milwaukee. ”He was frustrated by the board; he was frustrated by the general inertia of change in Milwaukee, that things he wanted to get done couldn’t get done,” Borsuk says. “He just saw more frustration ahead on that score.”
Curiously, little of that was ever reported in one of Borsuk’s columns. (You buried that lead, Alan.) But given his very measured carefulness as a writer, I’m sure Borsuk’s accurately describing what came through in interviews with Thornton.
Whatever the superintendent’s reasons for leaving, there are factors at work in Milwaukee that make it harder to do the job, and may make it more difficult to recruit his replacement.
In Milwaukee, the superintendent serves nine masters, the members of the Milwaukee School Board. Granted, they’ve been pretty unified in their approach to Thornton, but the board’s history has been that of an often divided, fractious body. In cities like New York, Chicago and Washington DC, the mayor appoints the school board, so the superintendent really has one ultimate boss and less dissension over policy decisions.
In Baltimore the school board is jointly appointed by the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland. That could be tricky if they are from different political parties (they aren’t) but quite helpful when it comes to getting state funding for the schools. By contrast, Wisconsin now has a Republican majority that is putting all its emphasis on replacing public schools with choice and charter schools. That’s another huge negative for any aspiring superintendent.
Another problem in Milwaukee is a lack of business support for the public schools. Since the early 1990s, when there was an organized effort by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce to support MPS, business leaders began to gravitate away from the public schools, throwing their support to choice schools. Businesses need skilled graduates for their future workforce, so they have built-in reasons to support the schools, but Milwaukee provides a plentitude of horses to back. Thornton had some success gaining business support, but in other cities, that would be easier to accomplish.
But probably the biggest problem any superintendent faces is the socio-economic background of the students MPS serves. Milwaukee in unique among big cities in the many routes it provides for more motivated students, those likely to perform better, to avoid MPS. The open enrollment system allows any city students to transfer to suburban schools that have openings. Chapter 220 allows the city’s minority students to transfer to suburban schools. Milwaukee has a more robust system of Catholic and Lutheran schools than many cities as a result of voucher funding. Beyond that there are all kinds of non-religious choice and charter schools located throughout the city.
As a result, MPS has year by year seen its enrollment include an ever-higher percentage of low-income students and those needing special education. It’s an extraordinarily challenging environment for any aspiring superintendent hoping to turn the system around.
If there anything attractive about Milwaukee’s system for a potential job candidate? Yes. As a result of Act 10, the system now pays less in benefits to teachers, which has trimmed costs, and the teacher’s union has been emasculated to the point it has far less ability to constrain decisions by the superintendent.
I am not arguing here whether Act 10 or school choice or Chapter 220 are good or bad state policies. I’m looking at this strictly from the perspective of a candidate for superintendent looking at the opportunity in Milwaukee. If I were a top-rated candidate looking nationally for a job, I could imagine deciding Milwaukee had too many strikes against it, and that other cities would provide an easier way to make my mark. The job of big city school superintendent is already tough enough, so why take one of the toughest posts, why not go elsewhere? In short, why not pick Baltimore over Milwaukee?
-Thornton had promised to give School Board president Michael Bonds a head’s up if he was considering taking another job, but didn’t. In fact Thornton said nothing until after he was in Baltimore being announced as its new superintendent. “I think there are people who are not thrilled with the lack of courtesy to the board,” Falk says.
-Falk expects the board will launch a national search for the new superintendent, but adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with someone locally.” Here’s hoping they look hard nationally.
-The orgy of press coverage on the emails of Kelly Rindfleisch began curiously at the Journal Sentinel, whose initial story was headlined “Judge expanded secret probe day before Scott Walker’s 2010 election.” That changed a couple hours later, after the Associated Press, Wisconsin State Journal and countless comments on twitter emphasized the evidence showing then-County Executive Scott Walker knew about the secret email system at his courthouse and all the campaigning on county time by his staff. The new headline declared the obvious: “Records link Walker to secret email system.”
The JS editors’ knee jerk reaction, it often seems, is to worry they might look biased against Republicans. That first headline could have been written by Christian Schneider.