MILWAUKEE – Demond Means might need a bit of luck to turn around some of Milwaukee’s lowest performing public schools.
Means was recently selected by the Milwaukee County Executive to lead the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), a state-mandated initiative that will identify, manage and improve some of the worst schools in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district.
Means seems like a good candidate for the job. He is an MPS graduate and superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District, one of Wisconsin’s best school districts, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But can the program help struggling Milwaukee schools if the schools reject the help?
Some MPS supporters are already describing the program as an attempted “takeover” of public schools.
A sign in the window of one MPS school, photographed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, says, “Defend Democracy. Protect our Public Schools.” In the middle of the sign is the word “takeover” inside a circle, with a slash through it.
The OSPP is even having trouble arranging its first public “listening session.” It was supposed to take place at Destiny High School, but had to be moved to another location due to complaints from MPS supporters.
They complained because Destiny is a private school that participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows low-income MPS students to attend private schools through state-provided vouchers.
Many public school supporters, particularly within MPS, hate the voucher program because it “competes with Milwaukee Public Schools for students,” according to the Journal Sentinel.
Each of those students has a certain amount of state money attached to them. Every time one leaves MPS for a voucher school, the money leaves as well. That’s not good news for MPS employees who count on the district for jobs.
MPS supporters seem to have a similar hostility toward the OSPP.
Last fall, staff and students from hundreds of MPS schools protested against the new program. The protest was organized by a public school advocacy group called Schools and Communities United.
Interestingly, a spokesman for that group is Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the union that represents MPS teachers.
The union has long been hostile to choice schools and many of the city’s charter schools, because they don’t hire union teachers. Perhaps they fear that schools selected for the OSPP will also hire less expensive non-union teachers, so they can funnel more money directly toward student programs.
“This is an attack on our democratic institutions,” MPS social studies teacher Lukas Wierer said during one of the OSPP protests, according to the Journal Sentinel.
While he opposes OSPP, Wierer admitted that MPS has academic problems and said the public schools must “continue to strive to do better,” the newspaper reported.
Some parents might wonder if striving to do better would mean much at MPS, following decades of dismal academic results.
Thousands of parents have already rejected the notion of MPS improvement and enrolled their children in the voucher program or one of many charter schools in Milwaukee.
Only 56 percent Milwaukee children are currently attending MPS schools, according to news reports. That percentage has been rapidly declining over the past few years, as alternative school programs have become more available.
Give the free flow of students away from the district, one might expect MPS to embrace any effort – including the OSPP – that might improve some of its schools and entice some students to stay.