By Brian Fraley | A Dairyland Sentinel Perspective

“How bad are things that MPS? Only 40% of MPS sophomores are proficient at reading and less than 30% are proficient at math. And the graduation rate and MPS is abysmal. Obviously what MPS has been doing is not working. So why has DPI ignored the problems of MPS? Why can’t the Superintendent and her deputies take a leadership role?”

More than 15 years ago, Rose Fernandez, then a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, tried in vain to rally the education community to address the dysfunction and dereliction to duty on full display at Milwaukee Public Schools.  In the decade and a half since her campaign, things at MPS have gone from bad to worse as the ‘leaders’ at DPI and Milwaukee’s public schools have failed hundreds of thousands of Milwaukee students. 

The bureaucrats at the state Department of Public Instruction have threatened to hold up some state aid targeted to Milwaukee Public Schools because the district keeps failing to file fiscal reports with the state. This could impact more than $215 million in general and special education aid payments. This has been going on since September, but DPI made the political decision to withhold this information from the public until late May.

This crisis comes on top of news that MPS may no longer be able to run the city’s Head Start program because of systemic failure there.

Like most people who have higher expectations for MPS, Fernandez was not part of the education establishment. Her background was as an administrator and pediatric trauma nurse. 

In a 2009 speech, she correctly diagnosed the problem in the state’s largest school district: 

 “In Milwaukee. It’s an urgent situation that demands immediate, extraordinary attention, especially as the economy worsens. We need to stop the bleeding, assess the situation and begin to treat the problem now. We can’t afford to wait.”

But waiting, and throwing more money at the problem was all that was done.

The failure of MPS  hits everyone in Wisconsin, no matter where they live. As Fernandez said then:

“The problems in Milwaukee impact school districts and taxpayers statewide from the distribution of school aids to the costs of social services, and even the court’s and corrections budgets… the fiscal and social costs of MPS continued floundering are incredible We can’t afford to fail another generation of kids in Milwaukee.”

Rose Fernandez was and is a parental rights advocate and a fierce proponent of education reform. She founded the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School families nearly 20 years ago and, full disclosure, I’ve had the good fortune of working with that group almost since day one. Many years before that, I served as a legislative staffer and saw Governor Tommy Thompson and Republican Senators like Bob Welch, Scott Fitzgerald, Dave Zien and Alberta Darling get rebuffed in their effort to break apart and rebuild the failed behemoth that is MPS.  

Every step of the way, reformers were met with resistance from Democratic lawmakers, teachers unions, and a media that carried their water and regurgitated their messaging that any attempt to reform MPS was heartless.

Fernandez’ plan was particularly robust. Remember, this was pre-Governor Walker, pre-Act 10. But her focus on workplace and labor issues was right on the mark.

She proposed the creation of an MPS turnaround team that would, for a three year period, have the administrative authority over the district. Local and state leaders, mostly Democrats, would have been able to appoint member of the turnaround team. She vowed:

“The turnaround team will be empowered to make dramatic changes at MPS. The turnaround team could be given flexibility and support from DPI and have the ability to:

  • Hire and fire the school superintendent.
  • Reform the curriculum to ensure a rigorous focus on the basics beginning in kindergarten.
  • Negotiate work rules pay and benefits with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Association.
  • Review and potentially structure a new pensions agreement for new employees.
  •  Assess and secure school safety at all MPS buildings
  • And determine whether to break MPS into smaller districts at the end of the three year period.”

Tony Evers, who was a deputy superintendent at DPI at the time, beat Rose Fernandez. He became a lackluster head of the Department of Public Instruction for a decade and is now in his second term as Governor.

MPS did not improve on his watch. It got worse. Much worse.

But the reformers persevered. In 2022, Senator Darling successfully shepherded legislation that would break up MPS into smaller, more manageable districts. 

The legislation would have created a commission responsible for defining the boundaries of 4 to 8 new districts in Milwaukee with similar population sizes. This commission would have consisted  of both the governor and the mayor of Milwaukee, each appointing two members, along with the state superintendent DPI—all Democrats. 

The bill mandated MPS to be dissolved by July 2024.

Governor Tony Evers vetoed the bill.

Why the focus on breaking up MPS? Because, like most big-city school districts, it’s become too big to succeed. As the recent failures by administrators show, it’s a giant, inefficient organization beset by mediocre managers who, even if they are competent, are resistant to change.

After five decades of floundering, perhaps it’s time for something different?

Now MPS is under fire for failure to account for spending, failure to file proper paperwork with federal and state bureaucrats and failure to provide proper oversight on how funds are being spent. Suddenly, because some Democrats are criticizing their fellow Democrats, the mainstream media has received permission to pay attention.

Where was this outrage when classrooms descended into chaos, and academic performance plummeted year after year after year after year after year?

In the nearly 30 years since Tommy Thompson proposed fixing MPS and in the 15 school years since Fernandez proposed MPS turnaround plan, the district’s performance has continued to be abysmal. Chronic absenteeism, unsafe schools, pathetic test scores, and poor graduation rates have marched on, year after year. And all the powers that be could do was complain that not enough money was being thrown at MPS.

Remember, many of the same people suddenly concerned about the dysfunction at MPS purposefully withheld this information this spring as the district went before voters for hundreds of millions of dollars in increased spending. Once they duped voters for more cash, only then did these lapsed deadlines and other misdeeds come to light.

I have no hope that things will change. But I can predict the future.

I imagine MPS Superintendent Keith Posley will be fired, perhaps as soon as this evening. (It could be months, however, before the public learns of the full compensation Posley will receive upon his termination).

I expect the MPS board to issue statements of righteous indignation at the poor performance of their scapegoat. I expect the Board will announce they will bring in subject matter ‘experts’ and conduct studies and audits. They will vow to ‘right the ship.’

The Governor will say he’s really super duper concerned as heck and by golly he’s going to work with local leaders to make sure things get fixed.

We may even get a blue ribbon panel!

We’ve seen this play out so many times over the last 40 years.  Eventually the press will move on to the next crisis. Meanwhile MPS will continue to fail.

The facts are, the problems at MPS aren’t because of one person, and they didn’t originate in 2024.

Thank heavens for school choice and a robust charter school ecosystem, to which at least some of the families in Milwaukee have escaped the failure of the state’s largest school system.

Parents have the power to leave Milwaukee Public Schools–and they don’t have to wait for the findings of a blue ribbon panel.

Given the fact that their elected ‘leaders’ won’t do anything to fix the problems, here’s hoping more parents will exercise the choices before them.

The adults in power in Milwaukee and Madison have failed Milwaukee’s children, for decades. Parents have options. Here’s hoping more of them take advantage of the opportunity School Choice and Charters provide.

That is, until the activist jurists on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court chip away at those opportunities.

To be continued…

Fraley is the owner of Edge Messaging, a strategic communication firm. He’s a former legislative and congressional staffer and a public high school graduate who has worked in the education reform movement for more than 30 years. His opinions and words expressed here are his own and are not those of any current or past clients or employers.