Milwaukee: Will Top-Down or Community-Based Reform Prevail?

By Barbara Miner

MPS children: A hopeful spirit.

Amidst the recent developments affecting the Milwaukee Public Schools, two stand out:

  • Gov. Tommy Thompson issued an ultimatum in his state-of-the-state speech and said that MPS had two years to improve or it would be “dissolved.” In the year 2000, the entire district could “ be turned immediately into a full charter,” he warned in the Jan. 20 speech. It would be run by a three-member commission appointed by the mayor of Milwaukee, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Gov. Thompson.
  • A coalition of Black ministers, which reportedly represents more than 250 central city congregations, announced its formation shortly after the governor’s speech and issued specific proposals to help reform MPS. Key demands include smaller classes in the early grades; a nurse in every school; summer school and after-school programs; and a call for the city of Milwaukee to reduce child poverty by 25% (see list, below). In a strongly worded statement released in late February, the ministers said: “There are no short-cuts to excellence in education. No gimmicks. And, no excuses. We get from education exactly what we put into it, and for a generation we have put in neglect, callousness, and, increasingly, a tight-fistedness bordering on meanness.”

The alliance’s formation coincides with an increase in grass-roots organizing. For instance, two other groups — POWER and Milwaukee Catalyst — are hiring full-time staff and solidifying their organizational structure (see article p. 25).

Efforts are underway to forge a common community agenda on MPS reform. The question is how much those in positions of power — the school board, the MPS administration, the mayor, and the governor — will listen to the community (see editorial, page 2).

Rethinking Schools interviewed a variety of community activists in recent weeks.

One person (who like many others preferred to speak off the record) said the growth in community/parent-based and faith-based reform groups “is unlike anything since the mid-1970s. The only similar example would be the desegregation movement.” She also cautioned, however, that the energy must be channeled into positive reform initiatives or else it would dissipate and lead to further frustration.

Several observers have underscored the importance of the religious community becoming involved in school reform and the long-term significance of members of Black churches playing a strong role, especially since African-American students account for about 60% of MPS students.

Paulette Copeland, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, at a public gathering at UWM-Milwaukee Feb. 20, challenged the business community and others in the audience to support the Black ministers and their demands. “Since the governor’s speech,” she said, “this is the only group that has come out in support of MPS.”

Several community advocates argue that the upsurge in grass-roots organizing is in part due to many community groups’ long-standing lack of confidence in the MPS School Board or Central Administration to lead a reform movement that will truly change the status quo and improve education for all children. There are also bitter feelings, particularly in the Black community, over the school board’s handling of hiring a new superintendent and its treatment of Barbara Horton, who had been acting Superintendent.

MPS Superintendent Alan Brown took over in October. Most community people are publicly reserving judgement. Brown, his job on the line, has said that he will focus on meeting the governor’s challenges. In particular, Brown has underscored the need for emphasizing curriculum issues and teacher training, especially as it concerns reading instruction. Two areas where Brown’s performance will be closely watched are the MPS budget deliberations and negotiations for a new teachers’ contract.


In his speech, Gov Thompson made no attempt to lay out any specific reform proposals. Instead, he issued his ultimatum and listed four specific measures by which he will judge progress in MPS:

  • MPS must improve its graduation rate to 90%.
  • MPS must raise its attendance rate to 91%.
  • MPS must cut its dropout rate to 9% (current dropout rates are said to be 14%, but are high controversial because few people are even sure how the rate is figured and whether the method is comparable to other districts).
  • MPS must raise its 3rd-grade reading performance to 90% of the state average. The governor’s speech emphasized threats rather than solutions. As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane noted, it was an example of “government by ultimatum.”

Kane said that Thompson’s thug-like threats were little different than the oftcriticized approach of then-Alderman Michael McGee, who threatened civic havoc unless conditions improved in the central city. Kane wrote:

“Seems like there are thugs, and then there are thugs.

“The governor of Wisconsin is a different kind of thug, but make no mistake, what he is pulling on MPS is a strong-arm move worthy of any gangster you can name, from Tupac Shakur to Al Capone.”

The governor does not seem to have a reform package that goes beyond dissolving the district — which would force MPS to become one big “charter district” and would, in essence, be a way to bust the teachers’ union — and appointing a commission to replace the school board. If he has a more specific reform package, he has not made it public.

John Matthews, the governor’s chief of staff, said after the governor’s speech that any appointed commission would have “total flexibility” to run MPS, including operating outside of the teachers’ contract.

Even critics of Thompson’s approach, however, acknowledge that his speech further galvanized the community, increased the sense of urgency, and provided a focus for measuring reform.