WILL Blog | Szafir: Failing MPS schools get no help from Demond Means, Chris Abele

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

Last July, the state legislature passed a law that created the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP).  This is, in theory, a bold reform that allows a commissioner, appointed by the Milwaukee County Executive, to partner with independent charter and private schools to run failing Milwaukee public schools.

The intent of the OSPP is clear.  The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) Board has blocked reforms for many years, preferring to keep the status quo.  Meanwhile, 55 MPS schools, teaching 40% of all children at MPS, are labeled as failing, according to the DPI.  The OSPP Commissioner – free of union control – would finally be able to work with charter schools, which, according to our analysis, are some of the best schools in the city.

In November, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele appointed Demond Means, superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville, as commissioner of the OSPP.

Four months later, Means has yet to fulfill his duties as OSPP Commissioner – but but that has not stopped the public sector unions from protesting.

As I explained in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Commissioner Means is trying his hardest to convince people that he will not do what the law requires of him.  Upon his appointment, Means proclaimed that “he has no intention of taking control of any of MPS’ struggling schools.”  In January, he wrote a letter to the City, stating the “[i]ntent of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is to serve as an ally to Milwaukee Public Schools.”

This should not be surprising.  Since last fall, County Executive Chris Abele has hinted, perhaps for political reasons, that the OSPP may not be used in a way that many education reformers desired.  In an op-ed, Abele stated  that “I am 100% committed to making sure MPS is not harmed in this process. In fact, I hope to add support for MPS.” 

Yet, the law does not give the commissioner the power or duty to be an “ally” or “partner” to MPS.  In stark contrast, Commissioner Means has the following duties (as mandated in Wis. Stat. 119.9002):

  • For 2015-2016, the commissioner must select one to three failing MPS schools to be transferred into the OSPP. For 2016-2017, the commissioner must select up to three schools.  Every year after that, he must transfer no more than five schools.
  • After the schools are transferred into the OSPP, the commissioner needs to develop a request-for-proposal process to solicit proposals from individuals and groups to run the failing schools.
  • Then, the commissioner selects who will run the schools. Only the following can run OSPP schools:  1) an individual or group not currently running a school [i.e. not MPS], 2) a person operating an independent charter school, or 3) a person running a non-religious private school.

In a telling interview with OnMilwaukee’s Jay Bullock, Means claimed that the Republican legislators’ intent of the OSPP “was not his intent at all.”  When it comes to the text of the law, Means hinted at looking for ways to “skirt” the definition of a takeover.

Yet, despite the inaction of Means and Abele, the public sector unions continue to organize and rally against the OSPP.  MPS parents, teachers, and students have organized at least two “Walk Ins” at over 100 MPS schools, protesting the alleged “state takeover” [we should be so lucky].  They also raise awareness through yard signs, social media, and petitions.  The “Overpass Light Brigade” has gotten into the action.

As a result, the issue has entered the Milwaukee County Executive race.  Abele made a “pledge not to take control of any school.”  His opponent, State Senator Chris Larson has said “he will refuse to comply with the law, and promised to repeal it.”  Apparently, no one will run on the “save children in failing schools” platform.

At the end of the day, Commissioner Means has been given the duty and the tools to try to turn around the worst schools in the city.  Will he follow the law – or is this yet another victory for the MPS proponents of the status quo?

We’re running out of time waiting for an answer.

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