MILWAUKEE – Some might call it amazing, or incredibly self-serving, for the leader of the Milwaukee teachers union to argue that the Milwaukee school board is best suited to guide a turnaround in the city’s many failing schools.

mps-400x225After all, the school board has long been in charge of Milwaukee Public Schools, and the academic results (not to mention financial results) have been disastrous.

But at a Tuesday debate at Marquette University over the proposed Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, the union leader continued to defend the school district and its governing board.

“There’s a model that works, and it has nothing to do with governance,” Lauren Baker, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, said during the debate, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You don’t have to take (the schools) from their elected board and hand them to private operators to make that happen.”

Really?

In most of the 55 troubled MPS schools that may be chosen for the proposed Opportunity Schools program, the number of students proficient in reading or math is lower than 10.

On last year’s Badger Exam, 51 percent of students statewide demonstrated proficiency in reading and 41 percent in math. At MPS, 27 percent were proficient in reading and 17 percent in math.

That’s why the state passed legislation creating the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, which empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to choose up to five failing schools per year to be managed by outside operators.

County Executive Chris Abele has chosen Demond Means, superintendent of the highly successful Mequon-Thiensville school district, to be the commissioner of the program.

Means has forwarded a compromise proposal that would keep the chosen schools in the MPS district, allow the district to still receive state funds for those schools, and allow union teachers to keep their jobs and benefits.

Under the plan, an outside operator would have oversight over the targeted schools, to make sure academic progress is being made.

But the school board and teachers union have given the compromise proposal a cool reception, insisting that the program represents a state takeover of the district.

On Tuesday, Baker debated the merits of the program with state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, one of the authors of the state legislation.

Kooyenga called the academic performance of many MPS schools a “humanitarian issue,” according to the Journal Sentinel.

“We cannot accept the status quo; we need to be open to change,” Kooyenga told Baker during the debate, according to the newspaper. “I know you disagree, but I believe this will help MPS do better.”

But Baker called the Opportunity Schools program a “takeover district” and decried the fact that MPS would not get as much state money for those schools as they do now.

That’s not surprising, considering the constant financial crisis in the MPS district. The less money the district has, the less the union can demand for its members.

Kooyenga and Baker reportedly agreed that the new MPS superintendent, Darienne Driver, has launched some promising programs that might help kids, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Kooyenga commented that Driver can’t make the necessary changes all alone, considering the many struggling schools in the district, which prompted a stinging response from Baker.

“Here we have a Harvard-educated PhD who has taught and worked in urban systems in a variety of different cities,” Baker said, according to the Journal Sentinel. “Somehow we don’t believe her expertise is as good as a county executive who I don’t believe has a college degree… who brought in a commissioner… who has spent none of his professional career working with children in poverty.”

Perhaps Kooyenga and other reformers are skeptical of the idea of any MPS superintendent being effective, due to the long record of failure. The school board and its hired superintendents have been in charge for years, and the depressing statistics are endless.

Last year the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute published an article with the following stats:

“According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, there were 78,516 students enrolled in MPS last year in 134 schools that are graded under the standard rating system. Of those children, 31,595 students were in 55 schools that ‘failed to meet expectations,’ according to DPI.

“That’s 41% of the students. Another 23,954 children were in 49 schools that ‘meet few expectations.’ That’s another 30%. All told, that’s 55,549 students – a whopping 71% – enrolled in 104 MPS schools that either fail to meet or meet very few of the goals necessary to educate children.”

Considering all of that, Baker probably deserves a medal for managing to stitch together any sort of argument in favor of continued school board control. It’s an impossible position to defend, but she gave it a good try.