Milwaukee Moves Toward Mayoral Control of Schools

Published October 31, 2009

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wants to dispense with elections and appoint the city’s public school board and superintendent himself next year–a plan he and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) say will boost student achievement in the dismally performing district.

The plan mimics those already in place in Chicago, the District of Columbia, and New York City.

On the city’s Web page, Barrett says the school system needs a stable administrative structure and firm vision to succeed, and giving it one falls under his purview because it’s “inextricably linked with growing jobs, reducing crime, and improving our quality of life.” Milwaukee’s common council would approve his appointments, he said.

“This is a big issue and a complicated debate, and there’s a lot of people threatened by change in the status quo–but a lot of people, too, recognize the status quo isn’t sustainable,” said Lee Sensenbrenner, Doyle’s spokesman.

Poor Achievement

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) trails the rest of Wisconsin by nearly every measure of reading and math proficiency, according to a September 2009 study by the Public Policy Forum, a nonprofit research group in Milwaukee.

Of America’s largest 50 cities, MPS ranks 47th in graduation rates. Only half its students graduate high school, and 80 percent of those graduates require remedial coursework in college if they go on to higher education, said Tim Sheehy, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president and school board veteran.

Most appalling to Barrett, however, is Milwaukee’s racial achievement gap. The Public Policy Forum study reports a 30 point gap between white and black students’ achievement levels. Other studies–including one released in July by the National Center for Education Statistics–report gaps of 38 to 45 points, the worst in the country. Black students outnumber white students three to two in the district’s schools.

Quick Turnover

Sheehy said MPS’s history of rapid leadership changes, with eight superintendents over the past 16 years, has diluted its direction.

“Our superintendents have a shorter tenure than an NFL lineman,” Sheehy said. “I’d attribute that to poor choices in superintendents, a meddling board that tries to micromanage the district, and to changing attitudes of the school board. And I honestly feel bad for the school system because [it’s] hit back and forth like a ping-pong ball when it comes to strategy.”

On average, fewer than 4 percent of local voters turn out for MPS school board elections–much lower than the turnout for mayoral races, which is around 30 to 50 percent. Barrett says he’s not trying to make the school system less accountable to voters, but actually more so.

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Public Schooling in Southeastern Wisconsin,” by David Helpap and Jeff Schmidt, Public Policy Forum, September 2009:

“Achievement Gaps,” National Center for Education Statistics, July 2009: