Public Policy Forum Blog

Milwaukee’s K-12 System: What is it and how has it changed?

Over the past few decades Milwaukee has developed a national reputation as a petri dish for education policies and reforms. From the introduction of school choice in 1990 to the more recent expansion of charter schools, from the turnaround model to school restructuring, there have been few reform ideas that have passed Milwaukee by. Now, after decades of experimentation, do we have a clear sense of what the current K-12 education landscape looks like in Milwaukee?

Two reports released today by the Public Policy Forum – featuring a unique analytical approach – address this question. Instead of analyzing the public, charter, and private schools sectors individually, we combine data to paint a more complete picture of K-12 education in the City of Milwaukee.

The first report, What is the Milwaukee K-12 School System?, provides a comprehensive overview of the educational options as a guide for parents as well as policymakers. The report shows overall characteristics in terms of schools, students, teachers, types of schools, demographics, and academic achievement (where data is available). The second report, The K-12 School System in Milwaukee, takes a deeper look at the education landscape to show how it has changed in the past decade and how Milwaukee compares to 10 peer cities.  

Analyses in the companion reports indicate that the sectors are far more similar than they are different. As enrollment has shifted away from the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and towards charter and private schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), the charter and private schools have become significantly more racially and economically diverse. Today, each sector serves a student body that is majority minority and more than 75% economically disadvantaged.

Our trend analysis also highlights extensive school closings, restructurings, and openings across all sectors. In 2003-04, there were 393 K-12 schools in Milwaukee, but 10 years later there were 293. These figures actually understate the degree of fluctuation, as 173 schools that were open in 2003-04 were closed or restructured a decade later.

Similarities between schools sectors extend to academic performance. Whether one looks at four-year graduation rates or state assessment proficiency levels for math and reading, there is fluctuation between types of schools. However, the far more apparent trend is that each sector is performing significantly below state averages. This sector-level view masks individual high-performing schools, but the vast majority of K-12 schools in Milwaukee demonstrate a need to improve their academic performance.

These and other findings admittedly prompt more questions than answers, including:

  • What is the impact of school closings and school restructurings on staff, students, and planning?
  • Does the greater number of schools in Milwaukee and the continuous school turnover mean that finding, developing, and retaining school leadership is more difficult here than in other cities?
  • Do parents and students receive the kinds of information they need to make a well-considered choice in school selection?
  • Why has there been an increase in the number of single race/ethnic schools in Milwaukee and what might be done to alter that trend?

The Public Policy Forum aims to focus future research on these and other policy questions stemming from the reports. Further exploration of the school sectors, their academic performance, and funding mechanisms will lead to the identification of best practices that could improve student learning in our city and region.

Joe Yeado