Steven Walters
The State of Politics

A State MPS Reform Proposal. Again

Scott Walker joins a list of governors and others who’ve proposed reforms.

By - May 21st, 2018 12:48 pm
Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson

Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson

It must be something in the water, or in the fine print of the state Constitution: Every decade or so, a Wisconsin governor seeking re-election must publicly vow to reform Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

In May 1998, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson asked the Legislature to replace the MPS school board with a three-member governing commission and the MPS superintendent with an executive director.

Thompson was then running for his fourth term, which he won. But his reforms went nowhere.

About a decade later, in 2009, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle proposed a mayoral takeover of MPS. It was backed by three Milwaukee Democrats – Sens. Lena Taylor and Jeff Plale and Rep. Jason Fields – who said Doyle’s plan would let the mayor “select the most qualified, effective educator and school leaders at every level.” But opposition from most black political leaders in Milwaukee killed the idea.

Now we have another Republican governor, also seeking reelection, who says it may time to “shake up” MPS. Scott Walker, running for his third term, told a Milwaukee interviewer that “The key question is, maybe we need to do something more to change” MPS.

“In the past there’s been changing boundaries, splitting up [MPS] into smaller pieces,” Walker added. “Those are things that I think realistically, we have to look at in the future.”

Walker offered no specific plan to improve MPS, which had a four-year graduation rate of 62 percent in the 2016-17 school year, state reports say. The statewide four-year high school graduation rate that year was 88 percent – 26 percent points higher than MPS.

Four-year graduation rates in 2016-17 for districts in other Wisconsin cities were Madison, 83 percent; Janesville, 89 percent; Beloit, 88 percent; Kenosha, 87 percent and Kenosha, 87 percent.

Capitol politicians have offered MPS reforms for decades. Thompson also once called for breaking MPS into four districts. Other calls for reforms included:

*In 1987, African-American leaders, led by activist (and future MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller) pushed to create a separate inner-city school district. It would have created a “predominately black school district” with children in neighborhood schools, Thompson said.

*In 2017, Republicans Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Dale Kooyenga added to the state budget authority for County Executive Chris Abele to name a commissioner who would oversee a few failing MPS schools. It also failed.

Walker has blamed Tony Evers, the superintendent of public instruction and a Democratic candidate for governor, for MPS failures. “Democrats gave the superintendent of public instruction back in 2009 the ability to take over failing schools, and for whatever reason the current superintendent has failed to do that,” Walker said in his WISN-TV interview.

Evers used Walker’s attack to solicit campaign donations. “Walker’s solution to this problem is for him and his administration to take over the school district or even split it up — a possible step toward more public school privatization in Wisconsin,” the Democrat said in his appeal for cash.

Aides to Evers said he has helped MPS by requiring uniform math and reading curriculums, championed “behavioral interventions” that led to fewer student suspensions, and helped make sure teachers are more qualified.

Asked why calls for MPS reforms fail, two veteran Milwaukee observers cited different factors.

With Milwaukee as a majority-minority city, and the school population even more so, African-Americans reflexively view such proposals as efforts by the power structure to take away their power over their kids,” said UW-Milwaukee Professor Mordecai Lee, a Democratic legislator in the 1980s.

And, Lee added, “Improving urban school districts is such an intractable problem in every major American city: race, class, funding, white flight, poverty, housing, health care, etc. All true resolutions would probably require a generation to show results. Politicians operate on a two-year or, at best, four-year time horizon. They want political credit for actually improving things.”

And, Lee added, “Teachers unions are very influential – especially due to low-turnout spring elections.

Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which promotes private school choice, said Milwaukee’s political leaders are so “captive to the existing power structure within MPS” that they can only demand more state aid for the district.

“While that’s superficially attractive, there is no reason to think that would work,” Esenberg said. “Research tends to show that, beyond certain basic funding levels, simply spending more money generally doesn’t improve results.”

MPS per-student spending “significantly exceeds” the state average, he said.

It’s an “odd dynamic” that only Madison-based politicians “think creatively about MPS,” Esenberg added. “It simply isn’t going to be as easy to get anything done as it might be if Milwaukee legislators were motivated to try something other than ask for money.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

4 thoughts on “The State of Politics: A State MPS Reform Proposal. Again”

  1. cer5sure says:

    Reform Mps? And get in the way of Barrett’s bold and pioneering leadership? No!

    Idea: Connect all the schools with the Trolley, as that will leaves $ in its wake.

  2. frank schneiger says:

    Here are some assumptions that – if they were discussed – could move the discussion about Milwaukee Public Schools off dead center, where it is stuck now in the dialogue of the deaf.

    Assumption #1: It is a mistake to put this discussion in the usual left-right “crossfire” framework, which just leads to finger pointing. The best solutions don’t fit into that framework.
    Assumption #2: Deeply entrenched poverty and segregation/isolation are at the root of the problems in MPS. They are not going away anytime soon. So the challenge is to find ways to significantly improve the education of low income kids living in racially isolated communities. Corollary assumption: it has been done, so it can be done.
    Assumption #3: It will take money, lots of it, to significantly improve the education of many MPS kids. A lot of this money should be spent on early intervention, attracting the best teachers, and a range of wrap around services and high quality after school programs. Whatever is spent – well spent – will represent real savings over the costs of educational failure and the school to prison pipeline.
    Assumption #4: The current governing structure should be scrapped. It doesn’t work for kids. The Mayor should be made accountable for running the public schools and appointing the superintendent/chancellor.
    Assumption #5: Principals are the critical appointees. Hiring and assigning the right principals, along with replacing the wrong ones, is the critical action of the governing body.
    Assumption #6: The norm and culture of pessimism that pervades much discussion about MPS and the beliefs of those running it should be challenged directly. Those who believe that change isn’t possible should be moved out and replaced by those who will manage positive change.
    Assumption #7: Teachers and the teachers’ union are not the same thing. Teachers should be supported in all kinds of ways and – for a change – respected for what they do, but the union’s norm of defending the indefensible and opposing change needs to be taken on and defeated.
    Assumption #8: Public schools are “public,” and that is not a dirty word. Public schools can be places of achievement and pride. Many already are.

    There may be more assumptions to be tested, but this list would seem to be a good starting point for a substantive discussion.

  3. Joy Adams says:

    Politicians want to take over but non of them has a clue of what to do. Much of it is a societal problem. Our social service people have so many cases that they can’t do the job they were hired for and schools have such large classes that teachers can’t do the jobs they were hired to do. Voucher schools get to send any student they don’t want to the public schools on the 3rd Friday of Sept.. Politicians and the media paint the public schools like the bad guys and the private schools like the good guys. They pit private schools against the public schools by saying the private are better schools Maybe if we made them all public schools and everyone really cared it would help but everyone doesn’t care. There is lots of crime in the city but they haven’t said anything about privatizing the MPD. There continues to be fires in the city but no one said we should privatize the Fire Dept..

  4. Steve Again says:

    Very clear headed and insightful Frank. Find the best and most applicable success example, and
    adopt the same funding, controls, and incentives to sustain improvement. Start with an unlimited budget
    and see what is really worth asking for. In MPS it would be to occupy all neighborhood school buildings
    with family centered educational opportunities – including adult parents! I envision classrooms coupled with
    all facets of community (library, nurse/clinic, nutrition) resources accessible to all enrolled family members,
    and don’t forget Security! Making each school available for activities through afternoon, and some evenings
    and staffed by local residents in part time or full capacities as much as possible. Small towns a really
    a good model to start from. I don’t believe most teachers would oppose any initiatives which give them
    control as well as accountability (they really should pick the Principal or nominate from their own ranks!),
    a respectable level of advancement in wage ( think salary lanes with a cap worth sticking around to attain)
    coupled with leadership responsibilities, and allow them to help kids.
    Frank, you are especially right that supporting teachers directly is more important than the unions, but unions have
    long served to represent teachers’ interest due to the lack of more direct input and control by teaching and
    support staffs. And leadership is best culled from lower levels in the same school as in small towns!
    Interesting that Madison is lower than the other smaller cities listed. What is similar other than a segregated,
    poor population surround by affluent cosmopolitans ( like me).

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