Public Policy Forum Blog

PPF Pearls: Should we be surprised the MPS neighborhood schools initative did not work?

Today's Journal Sentinel runs the second of a three-part story investigating the outcomes of the Milwaukee Public School district's Neighborhood Schools Initiative (NSI), which increased capacity in neighborhood schools. The reporters, Dave Umhoefer and Alan Borsuk, find that despite over $100 million invested in school additions and upgrades, fewer children attend their neighborhood schools today than ten years ago and the amount spent on busing has stayed roughly the same.

Much of the reporting on this story utilizes Forum research: for three years during the planning and implementation of the NSI, the Forum closely monitored the district and conducted case studies in four MPS schools. Our reports from that time can be found on our website. The first report, from January 2000, entitled The Implications of Eliminating "Forced" Busing, concludes: "...the transition to neighborhood schools will require a greater effort by the district than perhaps was originally contemplated by the legislature. Most of today’s busing is voluntary, and in the current atmosphere of school choice, demand is not likely to decrease.”

Our last report on the topic, in June 2003, declared “the jury’s still out on neighborhood schools,” and concluded that “the innovative MPS Neighborhood Schools Initiative appears to be making incremental progress towards its twin goals of increasing neighborhood capacity and reducing busing. Not every measure shows results, but there are encouraging trends in neighborhood attendance. However, not until after the plan has been fully phased in can we truly judge its effectiveness.”

Now, in 2008, the jury is in: NSI has failed to reduce busing costs or increase neighborhood enrollment. As the Journal Sentinel story points out now and the Forum cautioned at the time, the data did not necessarily portend a slam-dunk success for this initiative--parents were not clammoring for fewer buses while enrollments were on the decline. Questions will likely be raised as a result of this week's reporting, and rightly so. Perhaps the result will be that the next time a large-scale reform is proposed, the questions will surface before the money is spent.

Anneliese Dickman