How MPS Is Hurt By Its “Friends”
North Division controversy raises issue: which schools best serve low-income black students?
Recently the Journal Sentinel ran two articles that, in my view, throw considerable light on Milwaukee’s inability to effectively address the needs of low-income, minority—especially black—students. In one, headlined “A Milwaukee high school is one of the lowest performing in the U.S. Is help on the way?”, Alan Borsuk listed a series of depressing statistics on the performance—or lack of performance–of North Division High School over the years.
Borsuk described a proposal from Howard Fuller for the Milwaukee Collegiate Academy charter school to share space in the largely empty North Division High School building.
The headline on the other article, by Annysa Johnson, answered Borsuk’s question: “Howard Fuller withdraws proposal to locate charter school at Milwaukee North Division.” In other words, no help for North Division is on the way. Evidently, that is the way the MTEA, the teachers’ union, wants it.
In withdrawing his proposal, Fuller commented:
We believe we’ve got something to offer. But we don’t think taking the community through the usual Milwaukee thing — with all the name-calling and demagoguery — is in the best interest of our kids and families or the kids and families at North.
Could the model we are using, that is beginning to have success with our kids, could that be something we could bring into North?
The MTEA had mounted a ferocious campaign against the proposal. As an MTEA official said, “We reject the premise of chartering, period. It is a vehicle of privatization. … We oppose anyone with a private charter proposal going into North Division. … Families, children and the community in Milwaukee have had more than enough of this 25-year private school experiment with black and brown children.”
Ironically, the MTEA is in effect claiming that it owns the North Division building. The ability to exclude others from using property is one of the marks of private property. Unfortunately, the MTEA, while claiming exclusive use of a building it did not pay for, does not offer to undertake the burdens of ownership, such as working to improve the outcomes of North Division students.
Enrollment at North Division is low, and declining. Borsuk puts this year’s enrollment at 354. The latest state report card, based on last year, put enrollment at 412.
The chart below compares Milwaukee high schools’ scores on the state report card to the percentage of students in poverty. In general, higher poverty means lower scores. However, demography is not destiny. Schools with apparently similar populations can have quite different outcomes.
According to the numbers, North Division and Milwaukee Collegiate are similar demographically. Their student populations are both challenged by high poverty. Both student bodies are largely African American—96.4 percent at North and 99.3 percent at Milwaukee Collegiate. Yet North, shown as an orange rectangle on the next plot, scores near the bottom of the high poverty high schools, while Milwaukee Collegiate, the green rectangle, is near the top.
It is worth noting that the five schools with poverty levels between 40 percent and 50 percent would be considered as “high poverty” in most cities, yet have very high scores on the state report card.
In Milwaukee, low-income black students appear to be particularly at risk. Recent research has helped isolate the effects of gun violence in the neighborhoods in which they live, lead poisoning, and evictions which can lead to entering a new school mid-term or homelessness. Recognizing these challenges should help in developing strategies to overcome them, but too often they become an excuse for poor outcomes.
The next graph reflects the challenge. It repeats the previous graph, but with only the high schools with an African American population of 80 percent or more. With this restriction, Milwaukee Collegiate Academy scores the best; North Division is at the bottom.
Looking at the results, it is hard to argue that Milwaukee Collegiate has solved the riddle. However, it is also hard to argue that there is nothing for North Division to learn from it. Fuller’s comment that the model used “is beginning to have success with our kids” is supported by the numbers.
As the next graph shows, over the past 13 years, MPS enrollment has declined by about 20,000 students. This has had the effect of shrinking MTEA membership. Part of the decline results from demographics; birth rates have declined in much of the upper Midwest and more people move out than move in. But the MTEA is right that increased choices—notably charters and the school choice program—have also contributed to this decline.
However, the MTEA’s strategy in response is wrong-headed in my view. It has much in common with the Trump administration strategy to save American manufacturing by enacting trade barriers. The MTEA would have been better advised to encourage the schools that employ its members to compete with popular choice and charter schools by learning from them.
Last year, there was a very similar proposal: to allow the Carmen charter school to establish a third school in unused space at Pulaski High School. I attended this hearing. As with the latest proposal, there was a distinct difference between the two school communities. Those claiming to represent Pulaski were defensive and hostile while the Carmen people were positive and expressed a desire to learn from Pulaski. If I had been a parent trying to pick one of the schools, there is no question which I would have chosen.
Without looking at the schools’ state report cards—25.7 for Pulaski, 74.9 at Carmen’s first school—there was no question which school was poised for success. I wonder why the leaders of the MTEA don’t see this.