School Choice Options Are Key to Milwaukee’s Competitiveness

Published June 1, 2008

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) represents thousands of employers in the greater Milwaukee area. These companies provide jobs for more than 300,000 of the region’s citizens, and they face the challenge of producing products and services that can compete in a global marketplace. Doing so requires bright, talented, well-educated people who are lifelong learners.

MMAC appreciates the role Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) plays in providing the educational foundation critical to the success of MMAC members, the community, and the future.

Low Achievement

However, the world is not standing still. While other regions across the globe are hard at work competing with us, we face some stark statistics:

  • Today, more than 160,000 of the Milwaukee region’s adult residents do not have a high school diploma.
  • Only 18 percent of the city’s residents have earned a college degree. By contrast, nearly half of the residents of San Francisco and Seattle have completed college; 40 percent in Minneapolis, 30 percent in Omaha, and 27 percent in Chicago.
  • Only 24 percent of black males in Milwaukee graduate with their age group.
  • Eighty-three percent of MPS graduates enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are taking remedial courses, and after six years only 38 percent have graduated or are still in school.

The message is clear: We need to do better. That’s why MMAC supported legislation in 1994 to give low-income parents a wider choice of educational options.

Needed Changes

Reaching at-risk, low-income kids is not easy. The schools that have a fighting chance with these kids are the ones with good leaders, committed teams of teachers, accountability, consequences–and more time with the kids. Under its current structure, funding, contracts, and rules, MPS cannot do this on its own, and cannot change fast enough to reach all the kids most in need.

Our support for giving parents the ability to choose where their children are educated is based on the belief that this system will give more students greater access to a broader array of high-performing schools, thus increasing the number of kids who graduate with the skills to be successful in the workplace.

Choice, Charter Successes

This belief has been strengthened as the choice and charter policies we have supported have led to the growth of some outstanding schools. For example:

  • CEO Leadership Academy: 199 students, 100 percent African-American, 98 percent at or near poverty, 92 percent attendance, approximately 85 percent of graduates accepted to college.
  • St. Marcus: 306 students, 85 percent minority, 85 percent at or near poverty, 95 percent of eighth-grade students proficient or advanced in reading, 100 percent in math, and 82 percent in language arts.
  • Notre Dame Middle School: 120 students, all low-income, graduation rates substantially above average, and 75 percent attend college.

Giving parents choices doesn’t guarantee everyone will make a good choice, but the dramatic growth in the number of parents utilizing choice and charter schools suggests our community is better equipped to reach our goal of educating more students with these school choices than we are without them.

This is not to say that there are not high-performing schools in MPS; it means our students are better served by increased access to more high-performing schools anywhere we can find them, whether in MPS or through choice and charters.

Pledged Support

Support for school choice does not mean we oppose MPS, though choice opponents often try to put us in that box. MMAC has invested more than $15 million in scholarships for kids attending MPS’s poorest high schools. We also helped attract more than $18 million in funding from the Gates Foundation for high school reform in MPS, and we supported the New Leaders for New Schools program.

However, after spending and advocating for tens of million of dollars over the past decade to support and promote MPS schools, we believe it is time for us to make a comparably modest investment in highlighting the value of educational options to Milwaukee’s economic landscape.

Giving increased school choice to parents is not a passing fad for us. It is something we view as a matter of economic life or death for our region.

There is no organization or special-interest group in Milwaukee promoting the value of parent choice in education as an economic asset. That’s why, as long as there are legislators trying to destroy the program, we will need to support it; and we will support it as long as we see results.

Tim Sheehy ([email protected]) is president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.