Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform

David Dodenhoff, PhD.:

The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district, like many of its big-city counterparts in other states, continues to suffer from poor student performance. Student test scores and dropout rates are at deplorable levels, both in absolute terms and in comparison with the rest of Wisconsin. This fact has led to a veritable cottage industry dedicated to improving educational outcomes in Milwaukee. The district itself has embraced two reforms in particular: public school choice and parental involvement.
Advocates of public school choice claim that by permitting parents to choose among a variety of public school options within the district, competition for students will ensue. This should improve school effectiveness and efficiency, and ultimately lead to better student outcomes.
Proponents of parental involvement argue that even first-rate schools are limited in their effectiveness unless parents are also committed to their children’s education. Thus, the parental involvement movement seeks to engage parents as partners in learning activities, both on-site and at home. Research has shown that such engagement can produce higher levels of student performance, other things being equal.
Research has also shown, however, that both reforms can be stifled in districts like MPS, with relatively large percentages of poor, minority, single-parent families, and families of otherwise low socioeconomic status. With regard to public school choice, many of these families:

  • may fail to exercise choice altogether;
  • or
    may exercise choice, but do so with inadequate or inaccurate information;

  • and/or
    may choose schools largely on the basis of non-academic criteria.

As for parental involvement, disadvantaged parents may withdraw from participation in their child’s education because of lack of time, energy, understanding, or confidence.
This study offers estimates of the extent and nature of public school choice and parental involvement within the MPS district. The basic approach is to identify the frequency and determinants of parental choice and parental involvement using a national data set, and extrapolate those results to Milwaukee, relying on the particular demographics of the MPS district.

Alan Borsuk has more along with John McAdams:

Rick Esenberg has beat us to the punch in critiquing the methodology of this particular study. As he points out, it’s not a study of private school choice, only a study of choice within the public sector.

George Lightburn:

ecently, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) released a report entitled, Fixing Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform. Unfortunately, the headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel read, “Choice May Not Improve Schools.” That headline not only misrepresented the study, it energized those who are dying to go back to the days when parents were forced to send their children to whichever MPS school the educrats thought best.
So that there is no misunderstanding, WPRI is unhesitant in supporting school choice. School choice is working and should be improved and expanded. School choice is good for Milwaukee’s children.
Here are the simple facts about the WPRI study:
1. The study addressed only public school choice; the ability of parents to choose from among schools within MPS. The author did not address private school choice.

A Capitol Times Editorial:

Credit is due the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute for releasing a study that confirms what the rest of us have known for some time: So-called “school choice” programs have failed to improve education in Milwaukee.
The conservative think tank funded by the Bradley Foundation has long been a proponent of the school choice fantasy, which encourages parents to “shop” for schools rather than to demand that neighborhood schools be improved — and which, ultimately, encourages parents to take publicly funded vouchers and to use the money to pay for places in private institutions that operate with inadequate oversight and low standards for progress and achievement.

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