Data Wonk

Schools With Low-Income Students Can Succeed

But they tend to be charter schools. Will Abele use OSPP to create more?

By - Jul 20th, 2016 03:05 pm
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaking at the press conference unveiling the plan for the museum to acquire O'Donnell Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaking at the press conference unveiling the plan for the museum to acquire O’Donnell Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

County Executive Chris Abele has repeatedly pronounced that he didn’t ask for authority over the Opportunities Schools Partnership Program (OSPP). This recently enacted state legislation gives the Milwaukee County Executive the responsibility to appoint an OSPP commissioner and transfer a limited number of poorly performing schools from Milwaukee Public Schools to the commissioner. As a result of the inability to reach an agreement with MPS leaders on the shape of the program, Abele’s chosen Commissioner Demond Means recently resigned.

In light of the abuse he has received for his acceptance of the program, Abele may be tempted to let it drop, in essence daring the Republican legislators to follow through on their threats to cut the MPS budget or otherwise punish Milwaukee. And even if the various threats don’t materialize, enrollment in MPS is likely to continue its long-range decline.

The MPS counter-proposal was for an early-childhood program located in the former 35th Street Elementary School. Presumably it would be funded by diverting funds from other Milwaukee County programs, leading to the suspicion that this proposal was designed to be rejected. It seems clear that the MPS board will not support any feasible version of the OSPP.

From the viewpoint of maximizing funding for Milwaukee education, the offer by Abele and Means to explore ways for MPS to count enrollment in OSPP schools makes a lot of sense. Students counted as MPS students bring the greatest amount of funding. This includes “non-instrumentality” charters — those run by independent entities but authorized by MPS. Lesser amounts go to independent charter schools authorized by other entities such as UW-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee (often call “2R” funding for the section of state law authorizing these schools). 2R funding is substantially greater than the per-student voucher that goes to private choice schools.

Under the Abele and Means proposal, MPS would have made a “profit”—the difference between the funding MPS would receive and the payments that would to the schools. This difference could have been used to support additional services to the schools, including the remaining regular MPS schools.

Apparently Abele and Means also expressed a willingness to consider treating the OSPP schools’ staff as employees of MPS. Doing so would in effect make these schools “instrumentality” charters in which the employees would remain members of the MTEA or other MPS unions.

The rejection by the MPS of all versions of the Abele/Means plan makes it likely that any future OSPP will come much closer to the vision of its legislative sponsors—that poorly-performing MPS schools will be removed from the district’s control and turned over to charter school operators. This model also comes close to one of the four strategies pushed by the Obama administration to turn around failing schools: the “Restart Model” in which a school is closed and reopened as a charter school, a model that few school systems nationally have embraced.

One argument often raised against attempts to raise the performance of low-performing schools is that their performance is much more a function of the students’ poverty than of the schools’ themselves. There is a lot of truth behind this assertion: Every school that the state Department of Public Instruction ranks as “failing to meet expectations” has a poverty rate of 60 percent or higher. The evidence suggests that such anti-poverty measures as increasing the availability of transitional jobs, increasing the earned income tax credit, and raising the minimum wage by increasing the stability of families would improve student outcomes.

When carried to the extreme, however, the poverty argument becomes another excuse for inaction. There is a scattering of schools both in Milwaukee and elsewhere that appear to effectively serve students in poverty. Here are the schools which, according to the DPI’s 2013-14 report card, manage to “meet expectations” or better and yet serve a student population of which 70 percent or more are economically disadvantaged.

Score vs % Poverty

Score vs % Poverty

Of the 20 schools that met both requirements, 10 are regular MPS schools. The remaining 10 represent all three Milwaukee authorizers of charter schools: MPS (both instrumentality and non-instrumentality), the City of Milwaukee and UWM. This result shows the legal status of a school does not determine how it performs.

However, the proportions are not what we would expect if we took a random sample of all Milwaukee schools. A disproportionate share of the successful schools are charters. While representing 17 percent of all Milwaukee schools, charters are half the schools in this group.

The next graph shows the DPI’s classification of the 126 regular MPS schools in its 2013-14 report cards (the most recent available). 52 were classified as failing to meet expectations—41 percent of the total. What can be done for their students?

MPS Regular Schhools

MPS Regular Schhools

One argument made by groups opposing the OSPP is to point to MPS programs aimed at turning around schools and suggest we wait to see the results of these initiatives. The most prominent of these in recent discussions is Community Schools in which MPS partners with the United Way to offer wrap-around services in the school. The addition of two more schools was recently announced, bringing the total to six. It is too early to judge the success of these efforts. But even if the initial six prove successful, resources may be too limited to allow expansion to a substantial number of school.

The MPS website lists five other initiatives, in addition to Community Schools. Elsewhere it refers to something called Commitment Schools, but it is unclear whether this program still exists. Adding the schools listed for all programs and eliminating duplicates, I calculate a total of 18 schools singled out for some specific improvement efforts. That leaves an awful lot of schools needing help but not receiving it.

Middle-class children have a lot of backup systems if the schools aren’t working for them. For children in poverty the safety net is the school. I believe the education of poor children is too important to be left to school boards, who often are driven by ideology or organizations protecting the interests of adults. (Disclosure: I previously served on the Milwaukee school board.)

If Abele decides to pursue the OSPP, he will doubtless come under renewed attack from the usual suspects. I would argue, however, that these groups have already done their worst against him, and it was not enough.

A bigger concern is the limited supply of effective charter school operators. MPS has seen a decline in both the number and quality of charter school applications, but that may reflect the district’s reputation as being unsupportive of charter schools. Attracting qualified operators is likely to be the biggest challenge for any future OSPP Commissioner.

36 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Schools With Low-Income Students Can Succeed”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    Bruce, you are clearly pro-OSPP, so let me re-post this here. I’d love for your thoughts. I have been asking these questions here and at JSOnline, and no one has been able to answer them.

    Since Milwaukee has so many underperforming schools, is there an obligation to quickly accept whatever turnaround plan is presented to them? Overhauling a large urban school system is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. The whole OSPP effort sure seemed rushed to me. Was enough time and effort spent securing community support and buy-in? How much time was spent communicating with parents of MPS children? What kind of communication was there? Also, I know that Darling and Kooyenga have serious problems with MPS and its leaders, but what is their philosophy on effective urban education? What cities or schools and leaders do they site as models worth following? Was that communicated to OSPP stakeholders? Did Abele and Means make any effort to have a frank discussion with Darling and Kooyenga about the magnitude of this plan and maybe ask for more time? I don’t feel like any of these questions have been sufficiently answered, and while it’s easy to blame MPS for saying no, I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

  2. happyjack27 says:

    I don’t think there’s enough data here to do a valid analysis. Missing are:

    * what are other sources of funding for these schools?
    * what is the student composition of these schools?
    * how many from other schools and how many were there already?
    * is there enough data to do a factor analysis?

  3. Milwaukee Native says:

    “A bigger concern is the limited supply of effective charter school operators. MPS has seen a decline in both the number and quality of charter school applications, but that may reflect the district’s reputation as being unsupportive of charter schools.”

    That may not be such a bad thing. (Even so there are plenty of voucher and charter schools, with mixed outcomes.) Here’s a recent NYT report on the fiasco in Detroit after it became an EASY and hot place for charter operators to set up shop.

    Many charters fail, or struggle to survive financially like Rocketship.Here’s an analysis of why national provider Lighthouse Charter failed after 4 years.

    Commentary on why forced efforts like OSPP rarely work…

  4. Bruce Thompson says:


    Another way of looking at it is that the OSPP is very small compared to the problem. Let’s start with the DPI estimate of 52 schools that “fail to meet expectations.” Assume that the OSPP is successful in converting 1 school the first year and maybe 2 or 3 in subsequent years. Children yet unborn will be attending schools that “fail to meet expectations.” MPS seems to be putting most of its reform efforts into Community Schools and has stopped at 6, presumably because of capacity constraints. This assumes there won’t be failures (there surely will be). And yet so much energy in Milwaukee is spent assuring that schools will continue miseducating kids.

  5. Milwaukee Native says:

    What in the OSPP legislation will ensure that a charter operator is substantially more likely to succeed when it is handed a failing school to take over?

    Is there anything keeping successful charters from adding capacity equal to one MPS school, and then another 2 the following year–without the costly and bloated bureaucracy required by OSPP?

    MPS’s stated reason for limiting Community Schools expansion, for now, is to evaluate their effectiveness and tweak the model.

    The most effective schools of all types probably have some common denominators. Is anyone studying what those are? I agree with Happyjack’s call for more data to allow a valid analysis.

  6. Jay Bullock says:

    Bruce, MPS has not “stopped” at six community schools–it is expanding this program to additional schools in this, its second year, and plans to expand further for the third, fourth, and etc. years.

    The OSPP, as I have written elsewhere, seems to be the state legislature’s attempt at dealing with a straw-man school board, union, and superintendent. In their minds, the failing schools are failing because of the governing body (MPS) and a recalcitrant union. The reality is the 2016 board, union, and administration are nothing like the dysfunctional board you were a part of (not blaming you personally, Bruce, just pointing out that MPS really was just treading water through most of the 00s), and indeed the cooperation between the union, board, and administration is what’s making the community schools a reality.

    It’s true we don’t have data on those community schools yet–but it’s also true that the list of 52 schools that the OSPP was supposed to draw from is based on data that are now three years old. My school is on that list, and when school starts for us in September basically none of the students who contributed to those DPI data will be in our school anymore; they were sophomores in 13-14 when they took the test, and most graduated last month and are now out in the world. Yet my school could still be “taken over” this fall based on the OSPP law despite the wildly out of date data.

    And Vincent raises an excellent point, one I tried to get the JS to publish in response to Alberta Darling’s horrible BS a few weeks back. Kooyenga and Darling did little to no outreach to Milwaukee families about what their schools needed. In 20 years teaching in MPS, I have never had a student or parent say, “Please fire all these teachers and replace them with outside contractors.” That restart model is an education reformer’s plan, and it’s the one that has the least support in the literature as to its actual chance of success (vs “turnaround” or “transformation” models). Parents and students want full-time librarians, lower class sizes, vocational education, experienced teachers, wraparound care and other things the legislature is too cheap to fund in MPS. Other districts are getting by with referenda, but Milwaukee just doesn’t have that option.

    Further, Darling’s big example of a successful “restart” district–the New Orleans Recovery School District–benefitted from things denied to OSPP schools: time (it’s taken ten years and a near-complete turnover of students to show improvement) and money (RSD schools spend $2,000 more, inflation adjusted, than schools did pre-Katrina; OPSB schools, the traditional public ones, spend $5,000 more). Even after the investment and the time, New Orleans schools on the whole are still below Louisiana state averages and there is reasonable evidence that RSD schools are skimming and hiding students to manipulate the data.

    The OSPP law demands schools meet or beat the Wisconsin average within five years with a $2,000 or more cut in funding!

    The OSPP was never meant to succeed. Means and Abele tried to find a way to work within the law and still help MPS, but MPS wisely wanted to protect itself from the inevitable lawsuit by WILL (the threat of which seems to have been what drove Means away) and said no. The legislature has the ability to give MPS the resources it needs to turnaround more schools, but they won’t under this governor and the current legislative leadership.

    I now cede the soapbox. Sorry for the ramble.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    So if that’s the case Bruce would you say the problem is that OSPP is too small to really achieve any significant system-wide gains? If it’s too small to really be effective considering the problem, is it the best way forward for MPS?

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    Great post Jay. You make many excellent points. I had a feeling little to no legitimate community outreach was done by suburban legislators. That’s a huge red flag. Why should parents and other stakeholders support the plan when no effort was made to get their input?

  9. Milwaukee Native says:

    Jay, Thanks for your credible analysis based on good data and 20 years of teaching.

    It sounds like your school has some successes in common with Mission High, the subject of a-four-year report by an investigative journalist of a so-called “failing school” where students are learning and ready for college.

  10. happyiack27 says:

    On education I am a bit of an outsider – I never fit into the model. Bored me to death. Seemed like half the year was spent on review and the other half painfully slow and shallow. So perhaps I have little of value to say for not being involved, but perhaps for that same reason I have much of value to say.

    In general I think the American education system today has three problems, none of which have anything – at all – to do with public or private schools, etc. briefly stated:

    1) maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the availability of a student’s attention is directly related to what demand their attention. And for many people – more than we care to admit – their demands come from their need for food, shelter, safety, and security. Needs which are not fulfilled.

    2) shallow teaching. And I’ve heard all sorts of Blame game for this, teaching to the test, bad teachers, etc. but studies show that “deeper” teaching – teaching focused more on concepts and reading – produces better scores on any sort of test, and that effect lasting longer – persisting -, and it being used more often voluntarily in later life. It’s a win win win.

    3. Not meeting the students” individual challenge levels. Despite the Christian belief “we are all equal” (except apparently those with a different creed or color), we are not, and our abilities range drastically on the different subjects. There needs to be more flexibility and more sensitivity in this. A student that excels in ine subject and fails on another, should be able to find a class in both subject that they a re comfortable with – neither overwhelming nor boring.

  11. happyjack27 says:

    Reading = reasoning. Sorry – iPhone.

  12. Question for Bruce says:


    Your points about MPS actually making a “profit” under the OSPP model differ from how I have seen this issue reported in the past. Past articles elsewhere have seemed to imply that the payments to MPS and the schools in OSPP would be at the lower charter school rate (somewhere just above $8,000 if memory serves). I realize the formulas are complicated and other stories may have oversimplified this. Without asking you to draft a treatise on school funding in WI, is there a link to somewhere that would explain in more detail how the various funding formulas would apply under OSPP and result in the profit you describe?

  13. Bruce Thompson says:

    Response to comment 12:
    A fact sheet put out by the legislature says “The per student funding would be dependent on the type of school selected by the Commissioner which may be a traditional public school, independent charter (2R) or choice.” The law reduces MPS funding by the amount given to 2R or choice schools.

  14. happyjack27 says:

    i looked up the cost – while teacher salaries are slightly lower in charter schools, administrative overhead is higher.
    unless the student to teacher ratio is vastly different, any cost savings is going to be related to teacher salary differences.

  15. happyjack27 says:

    I’m also reading that about the only thing that can be said about charter school performance is that it varies a lot.

    with that kind of variation, any claim of better or worse performance overall is totally unjustified. and without a strong baseline across some dimension, any more specific claims amount to treating noise as if it were signal.

    i’m just not seeing the pro’s here….

    i see the cons, (such as lack of oversight, tax $ going to religious indoctrination, etc.)

    a lot of con’s, but no pro’s….

  16. Milwaukee Native says:

    While teachers unionized are often maligned as the cause of urban public-school problems, unionized teachers also staff suburban schools, which often have better outcomes. I have found no evidence that getting rid of unionized teachers (who are often paid less) leads to overall better outcomes. As Happyjack notes, charters tend to have higher administrative costs.

    Higher-performing public schools do tend to have higher investments that include good libraries, arts programming, adequate techology and other resources, sufficient counseling, sports/after-school programs, etc. Their teachers (and administrators) tend to be well-credentialed without excessive turnover.

    No data supports that cutting per-student funding, as OSPP mandates, will lead to better outcomes. Giving control of a school to an appointed charter or voucher operator under the purview of a new OSPP bureacracy guarantees nothing but a lot of scrambling for years to come.

    Factors of some successful charters are their self-selecting nature and motivation of students and their families. The best ones are built around a carefully developed philosophy, culture or educational focus such as technology or arts. Slapdash efforts (which OSPP would be) usually quickly peter out.

    Bruce, have you studied what’s happened in New Jersey following its various takeovers of Newark schools or Detroit’s massive experiments with charters?

  17. Steve says:

    HJ27 is right on! Also, Bruce: this is not good on data presentation and is an improper statistical analysis. Simply put, “disproportionally” more “alternatively managed” schools are present in the upper right quadrant precisely because these schools are created for a high poverty clientel. (How many charters are in WhitefishBay?!) To be valid you should include all schools on those two axes and find out if there is any significant differences in their scatterplots. ( This can be reported as a slope and as an “r” value (coefficient of correlation). From the visible data any difference in the general negative slope is not even close to apparent. With the scatter in such samples all the alternatives blend right in. I feel your math is usually much more rigorous!
    My conclusion is that most charter etc schools have a high poverty rate, and that they perform just like the rest.
    Helpful research : would be to present all statewide data and see if anything really pops out. My hypothesis is tha t Milwaukee graph is completely indistinguishable from the rest of the state and that there is a clear negative correlation between poverty and achievement.

  18. AG says:

    As entertaining as it is that commentators on a web blog are telling someone who teaches statistics at MSOE how to do a statistical analysis…I think both HappyJack and Steve missed the point Bruce was actually trying to make.

  19. happyjack27 says:

    AG, your logical fallacy is appeal-to-authority:

    A pretty common fallacy among conservative-leaning people. along with the black-and-white fallacy and status-quo bias.

  20. happyjack27 says:

    oh, and also straw man and ad hominem and oh did slippery slope abound when gay marriage came up.
    maybe it’s wrong to pin them to just a few fallacies. over-simplifying.

  21. AG says:

    You can’t just pull logical fallacies from wikipedia that just sorta sound like they might fit. You’re the one who missed the point the author was trying to make… while also telling a statistics professor how to do a statistical analysis.

    At least it made me chuckle.

  22. Vincent Hanna says:

    So I went to Alan Borsuk for answers to my questions above. When it comes to education in Milwaukee, I’d argue he’s among the most informed and respected voices. I basically emailed him the questions above and he told me that OSPP was indeed rushed and not enough time was spent getting community support and buy-in. As for how much time was spent communicating with parents of MPS children, none. Not a single minute was spent on that before passage of the plan. That is inexcusable and exactly how you don’t handle something like this.

  23. AG says:

    It just occurred to me that you probably didn’t understand my point, either.

    Appeal to authority would be if I said that you were wrong because Bruce is a smart person and teaches stats. That’s not what happened. I said you didn’t understand the point he was making… and at the same time decided to teach him statistical foundations, which ironically is probably a class he teaches.

  24. happyjack27 says:

    Appeal to ridicule, another fallacy.

    It’s rather unfortunate for you because these fallacies get in the way of your ability to learn new things.

  25. happyjack27 says:

    No, I understood you. Apparently you still don’t understand that you were making an appeal to authority fallacy.

  26. AG says:

    Vincent, serious question… did you try asking Darling and Kooyenga?

  27. Vincent Hanna says:

    I did not AG. I have contacted Darling and her office several times in the past and have never even received a perfunctory “thank you for your message” response. Not a word. And I did not try to contact Kooyenga. Honestly I figured I’d have more luck and get something closer to the truth from Mr. Borsuk than the politicians.

    If Mr. Borsuk is correct, people should lay off bashing MPS over rejecting OSPP. They should reject an overhaul effort that doesn’t even bother to speak with parents of MPS children. That is a huge reason why the effort in Newark failed.

  28. AG says:

    Jack, the fact he is a professor that teaches stats was not the reason I said you were wrong, thus that is not an appealing to authority fallacy. It’s just a happy coincidence. I’m not sure how else to explain it to you.

    Vincent, I’m curious so I’ll email Kooyenga since I’m in his district. But I’m not sure this is comparable to NJ because MPS wouldn’t play ball to even discuss details from what I hear. How do you talk to parents at a school if you can’t even come to terms on what school(s) would potentially be part of the program? They also outright tried to block it through various ways that would make the school impossible to function.

  29. Vincent Hanna says:

    BS. You can set up public hearings or community meetings. You can send out surveys. There are plenty of things you can do. You can at least try. To not even try is inexcusable. If you try and fail, at least you can say “hey but look we made a sincere effort to garner community support and see how parents feel.” How can you try to overhaul a large urban school system and not even talk to parents? How is that ever going to succeed?

  30. happyjack27 says:

    AG, it doesn’t matter what reason you claim. The mere fact that you uses that to try to disparage my argument makes it a fallacy.

    Argument to authority falls under the broader category of irrelevance fallacies and operates under what’s called the “halo effect” (the same effect used in ad hominem).

    The mere fact that you seemed to think it relevant enough to bring, not to mention the clear goal I disparaging by way of the halo effect, suffices to properly qualify your line of rhetoric as specious.

  31. Vincent Hanna says:

    I have read The Prize. It’s comparable in that in both cases there was no effort by the reformers to communicate in any way with the parents of kids in the district. You should read the book.

  32. happyjack27 says:

    And then you processed to double done with an appeal to ridicule. You dug yourself a grave within a grave. There’s no climbing out of that one.

  33. Bruce Thompson says:

    Steve and HP27,
    Not sure if I follow your follow critiques. I, somewhat defined schools with over 70% poverty as high poverty. Most Milwaukee schools, charter and regular MPS qualify (125 of 152). 9% of the regular high poverty schools meet the “meets expectations” designation, compared to 44% of the charters. One factor is that all three authorizers, includig MPS, are far more willing to pull the plug on charters than MPS is on regular schools.

  34. Vincent Hanna says:

    Also I’m not saying MPS is blameless here. But in Newark because no effort was made to communicate with parents or develop community support, the reformers were never trusted. They were outsiders with suspicious agendas. It was understandable for people to see them that way. Sure seems like the same thing is playing out here.

  35. Jay Bullock says:

    I have asked Darling and Kooyenga for my own reporting and commentary on OSPP. They don’t respond.

    OSPP was slipped into the state budget without a single public hearing because Luther Olsen would not let such a bad plan get past his education committee. That’s how underhanded this whole process has been–so bad that Luther frickin’ Olsen is the good guy here.

    Could OSPP have helped MPS? I have argued yes, in the form that Means and Abele proposed. Then Means was threatened with a personal lawsuit–after suffering the slings and arrows of the MTEA and more–from WILL, the law group that our newest state Supreme Court justice is affiliated with. They will not rest until all of MPS is disbanded in favor of private entities.

    Is Bruce’s point that a lot of charter schools in town do okay with the same population as MPS correct? Yes. But was the OSPP ever designed as anything other than a way to privatize schools and eventually bankrupt MPS? No, it was not.

  36. happyjack27 says:

    Bruce, thanks for chiming in.

    I don’t think I’ve specifically critiques your method – if it appears I have, that was never the intention.

    To the contrary I feel you have been notably non-committal. Which seems to me a defensible stance. You have not made strong claims and there is therefore little to dispute but implication, real or imagined.

    If I’d level any critique it’d be about the small sample size and high variance in the data, which you seem to recognize, is severely limiting.

    Nah, despite AG’s guard dog like reactions I have no qualms with any of your “statistics”, only a frustration with the opacity of the data, which I imagine you share.

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