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Far from a mic drop, MPS proposals should raise concerns

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Last week, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver proposed a number of reforms to Milwaukee’s schools. Some of these ideas are not without merit.

It is, for example, probably a good idea to change a school schedule that was set during a time when many students needed to help on the farm. But this is hardly a game-changer. Indeed, although Driver does not propose it, it might be useful to explore a longer school year to reduce the well-established summer “brain drain” that tends to affect poor and minority students more than better-off students.

Other reforms could be beneficial, but may not go far enough to truly effect change in one of Wisconsin’s poorest performing districts. For example, it is unlikely that parents use a voucher to choose a private school simply because they “like” uniforms. What they really want is the discipline and higher expectations that those uniforms represent. Studies have found choice schools are effective at reducing crime, and report fewer 911 calls.

In other words, orderly schools require more than sartorial expectations. Is MPS willing to set the standards that a uniform requirement only symbolizes?

Principal coaching and staff changes may also be a step in the right direction. But one of the flaws in our public schools has been the lack of flexibility and teacher accountability that results from adopting a model of labor relations that was developed for mid-20th Century mass production facilities. Act 10 gives MPS the means to abandon that model. Will school officials now use it?

CJ Szafir is deputy counsel and vice president of policy for WILL.

CJ Szafir is deputy counsel and vice president of policy for WILL.

Where Driver’s recommendations become troubling is in their proposal to place control of charter authorizers in the hands of MPS. One of the central tenants of choice and charter systems is that diversity in school models and management, and not simply in race and ethnicity, matters.

Studies have found that limiting the number of charter school authorizers limits the variety of educational options that are available to students, thus impeding a central principle of chartering. Driver’s proposal is even more questionable when one considers that schools authorized by entities other than MPS are some of the best performing in Milwaukee.

Our own research has shown that so-called “independent charters” — schools authorized by local universities instead of MPS — score significantly higher on state exams and are more efficient with taxpayer money than MPS-authorized charters schools and standard public schools. A move to greater centralization is precisely what we do not need.

The accountability debate — for both public and private schools in the voucher program — is an important one and one that is too complex to be reduced to sound bites. Private schools, of course, are in a different position when it comes to accountability because they are not controlled by the state. That is not a drawback — it is a feature. While, as we have shown, private schools in the voucher program are every bit as “accountable” to the state as public schools, they are also accountable to parents who may “vote with their feet” if their children are not well-served.

Will Flanders is education research director for WILL.

Will Flanders is education research director for WILL.

Whatever additional accountability measures are chosen for schools participating in the voucher program should not be administered by MPS or DPI. Parental choice should be recognized as an important — perhaps even paramount — vehicle for accountability.

The bottom line is that MPS should get its own house in order before going after the MPCP or independent charter schools.

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