Public Policy Forum Blog

April 3: The Ultimate MPS Survey

In a few days, Milwaukeeans will elect members of the Milwaukee School Board. Let's hope we choose board members who pay attention to their constituents.

Over the past 30 years, Milwaukee’s children have been subjected to massive busing and racial desegregation; plans to split the district into pieces; efforts to take the schools out of the hands of an elected board and turn them over to the state or the mayor; decentralization; the return to neighborhood schools; No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing; school to work; school vouchers; and now recentralization.

These reforms add up to one rule of life: Education reform is rarely about education. It tends to be about ideology, politics, power, business and money. And often the powers that be don't listen to what children and their parents want and need.

That’s why the Forum, at the request of MPS administrators, conducted telephone interviews last year with 900 city residents. The findings read like a primer on priorities for the newly-elected Milwaukee School Board.

First, most people envision schools as being more like full-service social service agencies. They want MPS to provide adult mentors for children, before/after school programs, employment counseling, measures to improve attendance, nursing services, social services like mental health counseling, housing assistance for poor families, and measures to reduce poverty.

Also, more than 80% think it is extremely important that MPS provides violence prevention services, as well as other measures to improve safety and discipline – such as scanning everyone who enters school buildings for weapons, assigning police officers to work in middle and high schools, using dogs to search student lockers for controlled substances, and drug and alcohol prevention programs.

A related finding is that the worst perceived problems in MPS have nothing to do with the schools themselves – as we think of them with today’s blinders on. The biggest problems - lack of resources, parental involvement, discipline, drugs/alcohol, and student safety - are not internal, in fact, to the actual school system as it is currently constituted. Things more within MPS’s control, such as efficiency, discrimination, quality of principals and teachers’ ability, are not perceived to be major problems.

If MPS is going to listen to its customers, school board candidates – and certainly next week’s winners – need to address these findings.

Specifically, candidates need to contemplate this question: What would schools look like if they were full-service agencies that combined the functions of state, county, municipal and school governance?

The list of “what-ifs” is long and may be helpful for sparking discussion and thoughtful debate:

  • What if all three of the largest governments in Wisconsin, not just MPS but also the city and county of Milwaukee, were major players in all MPS schools – and were responsible for MPS outcomes?
  • What if current partnerships – such as the new Browning School that shares a building with the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, or Metcalfe that shares a building with the Boys and Girls Club -were replicated system-wide?

  • What if MPS provided more direct services -adult education, health care, job placement, parenting education?

  • What if the schools were more of an information clearinghouse and referral service for the families of their students?

  • What if every school had social workers doing case management and coordination for all their students and their students’ families?

  • What if the informal triage that divides children into future productive citizens and future prisoners were replaced with a coordinated state/county/city/MPS partnership truly aimed at leaving no child behind?

Suppose the school board got creative to address the real concerns of actual children and their families? Then this election could get interesting.