Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearls: Mayoral takeover of schools

Last winter, at the behest of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Forum conducted an analysis of other urban school districts that had undergone governance reform such as state or mayoral takeovers. Our findings are pretty much summed up by the subtitle of the report: The Devil is in the Details. It's becoming tedious to say, but we found, again, that there are no silver bullets in education reform.

At the time our report was released, neither the mayor nor the governor had explicitly said a mayoral takeover was on the table, but that has changed now, perhaps largely because the U.S. Department of Education has made clear that this kind of governance reform can be rewarded with federal "Race to the Top" funds.

These federal funds being dangled in front of our leaders are not a sure thing, however. As part of the Race to the Top grant program, they would be competitive funds, awarded to the state only if certain criteria are met. These criteria are still in draft form, but include the state (and the district) making "assurances" that steps are being taken in four areas to improve student outcomes. The four areas include:

  • Standards and assessments--adopting common standards and implementing common, high-quality assessments
  • Data systems to support instruction--implementing a statewide longitudinal data system that is accessible to parents and other stakeholders and using data to improve instruction
  • Improving teachers and leaders--providing alternative pathways to teaching and school leadership, measuring and rewarding teacher performance, ensuring the most effective teachers and principals are equitably distributed across schools, and measuring and reporting the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs
  • Turning around struggling schools--intervening in the lowest-performing schools and districts, increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools, and turning around struggling schools.

In addition, a specific draft criterion would require the state to demonstrate that education is a funding priority by not cutting K-12 aid from 2008 levels. Other factors to be considered are the support of the teachers unions and the state's progress toward closing the racial achievement gap.

For Wisconsin and Milwaukee, meeting many of these criteria may be a stretch. Maintaining K-12 aid has been difficult in the past several budget cycles, even prior to the recession and the loss of state income tax revenue. The racial achievement gap in Wisconsin is among the worst in the nation and is not narrowing here as it is in other states. The strong teachers union has voiced opposition in the past to many of the items to be "assured," most notably the idea of tying teacher pay to student performance.

In addition, before the mayor gets a chance to try his hand at running the school district, the legislature will have to make certain statutory changes.

In the meantime, the school board will be debating significant structural changes within the district's administration and recruiting a new superintendent. Could all these forces come together in a federally-funded "perfect storm" that raises student achievement in Milwaukee? The chance seems remote, but you may want to keep an umbrella close at hand, just in case.

Anneliese Dickman