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Good Riddance; What's Next?

By MIKE NICHOLS | Feb. 20, 2014

MPS Superintendent Greg Thornton has announced that he’s heading east to Baltimore. Good riddance. A story I wrote last summer for our WPRI magazine, Wisconsin Interest, explained why – for Milwaukeeans – Thornton’s departure is not a bad thing. 

Unless, of course, the same old players on the school board are allowed to choose the same old sort of superintendent and then refuse to give him, or her, the leeway to reform Milwaukee's public schools.

When Thornton was selected four years ago, then-MPS Board Vice President Peter Blewett put his finger on precisely how the old guard thought the new hire could make MPS the star of the nation:

"The board’s looking for the right person to make Milwaukee Public Schools the star of the nation, and this guy has the key ingredients," Blewett was quoted as saying. "A couple of my constituents were excited about the possibility of him being superintendent because he promised to have coffee with parents."

That's right. The key to great schools in the eyes of the school board?

Coffee with parents. 

Blewett is no longer on the board, but many of the same folks who chose Thornton still are. You hope they realize that it's going to take more than a visit to Starbucks with a few parents to finally turn MPS around. In fact, in our Pathway to Success project we found that Milwaukeeans -- parents included -- too often have little enthusiasm for creating the "laboratories of innovation" the smartest education minds say are needed here to give Milwaukee's kids a real chance.

As we stated in the the summary of the Pathway book last year, polling does show that the public understands the deficiency of Milwaukee's schools, and most Milwaukeeans say they support a "major overhaul."

"However, when asked about specific changes, their enthusiasm wanes. For example, polling showed little support for either a longer school day or a longer school year. The public also thinks that the school district, not school principals, should make teacher hiring decisions. Less than half of the public supports the idea of students taking on-line classes. Moreover, the public is supportive of two institutions that education reformers have long had in their sights: the public school board and the teachers' union. The only thing the Milwaukee public can coalesce around is spending more money."

If there's one thing that has been tried and tried and tried already, it's spending more money. 

"So while Milwaukee says it supports a major overhaul of schools, the public really supports a very traditional approach," WPRI found last year. "We can't help but notice how our panel of experts and the Milwaukee public are on an altogether different page."

As it seeks a new superintendent, Milwaukee has a rare opportunity (well, at least one that only comes around every four or so years) to alter the heretofore sad trajectory of too many of its children's lives. But everybody who cares about their kids has to also start caring enough to educate the school board, as it looks for a new leader and decides how much latitude to give him or her, about what works and what doesn't.

It shouldn't be that hard.

We just saw what doesn't work head out the door to Baltimore.  

Mike Nichols is president of WPRI.

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