Questions Remain on “Opportunity Schools”
Republican plan giving Abele power over low-performing MPS schools offers few details.
Of the many provisions included in the forthcoming state biennial budget, few usher in such wholesale change as the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP). Authored by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), the legislation seeks to improve academic achievement by converting low-performing MPS schools to charter schools and private schools in the choice program under the oversight of a commissioner appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
There were few details when the plan was passed by the Joint Finance Committee in May, including a one page brief outlining the program. Since the plan was adopted as part of the 2015-2017 state budget and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in July, new details provide a better understanding of the program.
The OSPP commissioner has the ability to select MPS schools that received the lowest ranking on state report cards. For the 2013-14 school year, there were 55 schools that met this criterion. The commissioner also has the ability to select schools that enroll less than 40 percent of capacity and to use vacant school buildings to house selected schools. From this pool, up to three schools in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years and up to five schools per year thereafter, will be transferred to the OSPP.
Once a school is incorporated into the OSPP, the commissioner can solicit proposals from new or existing charter and private schools to take over management and instruction. Existing charter and private schools are eligible in one of two ways. First, the charter or private school must have test scores that are better than the targeted MPS school. Second, the charter or private school must have a report card rating that exceeds the MPS school for three consecutive years.
Once chosen, the charter and private schools will have a five-year contract to manage the OSPP school. The school cannot be transferred out of the program before the end of this contract and can only be transferred if its report card rating has improved. The schools must be not-for-profit, cannot charge tuition and nonsectarian.
The last requirement seems to exclude private religious schools that participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). However, a majority of the high performing private schools have a religious affiliation, usually Catholic or Lutheran. In fact, there were only 14 non-religious private schools in MPCP in 2014-15. Excluding private religious schools may reduce the number of quality options for the OSPP.
If an OSPP school uses an application process for enrollment, there must be a random selection process if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available spots. This seems to indicate that OSPP schools cannot be selective, though that does not necessarily mean they will reflect the same student profile as MPS. A review of school sectors in Milwaukee showed that most types of charter schools enrolled about half as many students with disabilities as MPS.
OSPP schools will be funded on a per-pupil basis, at the same rate as a charter school. State aid to MPS will be reduced by the amount allocated to OSPP. The commissioner is allowed to charge an annual fee to OSPP school operators in order to participate in the program. This money would be used to pay salary and administrative costs for the commissioner and program staff.
The commissioner will evaluate the performance of each OSPP school at the end of the third year of the contract. If academic performance has not improved, the commissioner may select another person or school operator to take over, though the school remains in the program.
An OSPP school can be transferred out of the program if it has improved performance and “meets expectations” (a rating of 3 out of 5) on the state report card by the end of the contract. The commissioner could return the school to MPS or could permanently place it under the governance of a charter or private school.
Despite this new level of understanding, several questions about the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program remain:
- Will the OSPP schools use the same performance examinations as MPS? If not, how will the commissioner be able to accurately compare the performance of the OSPP schools with MPS?
- In 2013-14, there were 11 failing schools outside of the Milwaukee Public School district. Will the OSPP be expanded to include failing schools in other districts?
- What kinds of wrap-around services will the commissioner provide, especially given that the services must be revenue neutral?
- If the Department of Public Instruction is not releasing report cards for the 2014-15 school year, will the selection of schools be based entirely on report cards from 2013-14?
- Will the program continue to incorporate five schools each year indefinitely? If there are no MPS schools that have the lowest rating, will OSPP continue to incorporate MPS schools?
- The legislation only addresses low-performing MPS schools. Will low performing private schools and non-MPS charter schools be eligible for incorporation into OSPP?
The central theme of the plan — that charter and private school operators will do a better job than MPS — is being challenged by public school supporters. The proposal set out to fix 55 failing MPS schools, but it did not mention that seven of those failing schools are charters governed by MPS. Additionally, three non-MPS charter schools also received the lowest rating. A comparison of schooling sectors in Milwaukee shows that the private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program collectively had the lowest test scores.
Simply being a charter or private school does not automatically result in high academic achievement. In reality, there are high-performing and low-performing schools in each sector — MPS, charters and private schools. We must replicate the best practices of high-performing schools — regardless of the sector — to truly improve education in Milwaukee.
Darling and Kooyenga deserve credit for pointing out the unacceptability of low-performing schools. Yet, until details of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program are worked out, it will be unclear if the program will lead to higher academic achievement, or just be another in a long line of unsuccessful Milwaukee education reforms.
Joe Yeado, a senior researcher with the Public Policy Forum, writes that when it comes to the new Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, the devil is in the details.