By Karen Flanigan
I am a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher. I adored my students, building administrators, and colleagues. Yet, my experience was heartbreaking on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time to have an honest conversation about breaking up the behemoth that is MPS.
If Wisconsin lawmakers truly value education and protecting a bright future of all children in this state, then they would be wise to act quickly and support Sen. Alberta Darling’s reform efforts to split MPS into several smaller school districts. Let me tell you why.
Every year, hardworking Wisconsinites cheer as politicians pour millions of tax dollars into our public schools. The promise is always to improve learning outcomes, instruction, and social and emotional wellbeing. Instead, we are left with the same devastating lack of academic proficiency and demoralized staff and children in some of our state’s largest districts, specifically Milwaukee Public Schools.
School districts, lawmakers and special interest groups argue that increased levels of funding is necessary to help students become college or career ready, and yet the inverse happens in Milwaukee where proficiency rates in reading and math are 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Milwaukee Public Schools is home to 13 of the 20 worst schools in our state. Every year we pay more money into a system in which student enrollment has declined precipitously for well over a decade. If that isn’t failure, then I don’t know what is.
Parents and educators want schools that represent their values. They want schools that allow their students to feel proud to belong to their school community. They want excellent outcomes for their students — and want a voice in the process. This is one reason why we are seeing families flee from large public school systems, both in Wisconsin and nationally. Enormous and intimidating institutions are not representing families and educators the way many charter, private, and homeschooling options can.
I was lucky enough living in Milwaukee to have experienced the many rich and vibrant sub-cultures, and know that the needs of each community are not identical across the board. By meeting the needs of our communities and giving them a voice in the process, we are empowering our families to belong to a system rather than be consumed by it.
Smaller districts would mean school board elections and candidates would more accurately represent the families and communities they serve. Parents’ voices would be more influential because the boards would be competing with other local school districts. Teachers and administrators would also have better access to school board members and have more of a voice in decision-making processes. When I moved on to other districts smaller than MPS, I found access to central office curriculum writers and policymakers to be much easier, empowering me as an educator.
Individual independent districts could open charter, immersion, Montessori or other school models that their communities vote for. Innovative instruction initiatives or special education accommodation quality in the districts may attract more families, and reduce the need for the families to take their students out of the city for an excellent education. “Voting by foot” to another Milwaukee district may mean a family did not have to accommodate a long commute to the suburbs.
Smaller districts would provide more accountability for tax dollar allocation. Taxpayers across the state of Wisconsin know money is required to run successful schools. They don’t, however, always trust that their hard-earned money is being used in the most effective ways. Transparency would be much easier attained with fewer schools, staff, and smaller scale logistical operations. Local businesses and community organizations would be more likely to feel connected to community schools and partner in fundraising and other engagement efforts.
Teacher, student, and parent burnout is real. Increasing family and community engagement is an absolute necessity when creating a school system with a positive and rigorous culture. The spending crescendo to an abjectly failing school district is not working, and unfortunately, the crippling burnout will persist until we take action.
It is time to support Sen. Darling’s reform efforts. It is time to break up Milwaukee Public Schools.
Karen Flanigan is a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and currently resides with her family in Waukesha County.