Keep an eye on these top 10 Milwaukee education issues

Sep 1, 2013 by

Death-Panel-pic-3Alan J. Borsuk –

Time for my annual opportunity to show off the limits of my insight to anyone who re-reads this at the end of the new school year. In other words, here is my list of 10 things to keep an eye on as the general opening day of school arrives Tuesday:

One. The Head Start shift in Milwaukee.

Here’s a new year’s resolution for me: I should pay more attention to the early childhood and pre-school programs in Milwaukee.

Kids who arrive in kindergarten well prepared do much better than kids who don’t. Major changes in who is running federally financed Head Start programs here are the leading development in a broader effort to do better for low-income kids.

I hope this and other efforts work out to be big positives for Milwaukee.

Two. “Smarter Balanced” statewide tests.

Many Wisconsin schools will be involved in trial runs this year of the computer-based and much different statewide tests.

Every school will get them in 2014-’15. I’m curious how the trial runs will work. I’m even more curious to watch the course of the Smarter Balanced consortium involving two dozen states.

This is a big undertaking with potentially large impact and large problems.

Three. The continuing market share battle in Milwaukee.

This is a permanent item on these lists because it’s so central to understanding what is going on.

How many kids end up in MPS schools, charter schools and vouchers schools, plus how many city kids enroll in suburban public schools. So much is at stake when it comes to politics, money, power, jobs and institutional vitality.

Oh, I forgot to put quality education on the list.

Four. Statewide vouchers and tax credits for private school tuition.

I assume this year will be too soon to really grasp what impact these remarkable new developments will have.

For one thing, the statewide vouchers are limited to 500 students this year.

But how can you not want to look for any sign of how these important initiatives are going?

Five. The Common Core. Have to put this on the list each year also. The Common Core standards for reading, language arts and math, accompanied by changes in curriculum and teaching, are leading almost every school in the state to make major changes.

I hope they’re for the better — the standards themselves are certainly more ambitious than what we had. A year ago I wouldn’t have taken note of Common Core opposition in Wisconsin.

Now, it’s growing and it could affect what develops.

Six. The new kids on the block. There are quite a few, but three new schools particularly interest me. They are:

Carmen North. Will the people involved in the successful Carmen High charter school on the south side successfully launch a middle school-high school program in a long-troubled MPS building on the northwest side?

Rocketship Southside Community Prep. This high-profile charter elementary, the first expansion for Rocketship Education beyond its base in San Jose, Calif., will be watched by education activists nationwide who heatedly debate the virtues of the program, which includes a strong component of technology-based learning.

Universal Academy for the College Bound. This Philadelphia-based charter school operation is opening elementary and middle schools in two MPS buildings on the north side. The questions I had about how this will go were only compounded when the key Milwaukee leader, Ronn Johnson, was charged recently with sexually assaulting children. But Universal appears intent on weathering the damage that caused.

Seven. MPS leadership. There was a period in the spring when the future of Superintendent Gregory Thornton seemed in doubt.

I still don’t get why School Board members considered putting $80,000 in the budget for a superintendent search.

But last week the board voted to extend Thornton’s contract until 2016. I’d suggest the focus now should be on the rungs below Thornton.

There’s been a lot of change in administrative ranks and a continuing wave of changes in principals. It may be difficult for outsiders (including me) to figure out how this is going, but I know it’s really important.

Eight. Charter schools, voucher accountability and the Legislature. Now that the budget is settled, will the Legislature do anything to expand charter school availability statewide and to improve accountability for voucher schools by steps such as making schools with publicly funded students take part in the state’s school report card system?

Nine. Teacher “effectiveness” initiatives.

There was a big and somewhat bipartisan push a couple of years ago aimed at improving the quality of teaching statewide, largely built around new ways to evaluate teachers.

Excellent idea. But my take on this is that the pace of change has slowed as it becomes clearer nationwide how complicated it is to do this productively. Nonetheless, work continues. Will it be productive? I’m not so sure.

Ten. Playing nicely together.

Will there be any progress this year on getting to a point in Milwaukee where efforts are generally motivated by a desire to see the best possible education for every child, and not just those in specific silos?

I’m not talking about teachers — they’re right to focus on the kids in front of them. I’m talking about leaders, who ought to be advocating for every child.

On this front, keeping an eye on the battle between St. Marcus Lutheran and MPS over using vacant MPS buildings is worthwhile. St. Marcus is not the right choice for every kid, but it’s a proven high-quality school.

Some MPS leaders seem determined to keep them from expanding. That makes the situation one worth watching.

In 17 years of covering education in Milwaukee, I’ve never been short of things to write about. I predict this year won’t break the streak.

I might be wrong on how hot some of these ideas will be. But there’s plenty going on.

I hope what happens by next June moves things in a positive direction, especially for kids.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. Reach him at

via Alan J. Borsuk – Keep an eye on these top 10 Milwaukee education issues.

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