Kathleen Falk today used a closed school as a backdrop for a campaign speech touting her plans to restore school aid cuts if elected governor. The school, Phillis Wheatley Elementary, was recently shut down by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Last month a candidate running against Milwaukee representative Jason Fields in the 11th Assembly District Democratic primary, Mandela Barnes, kicked off his campaign in front of MPS’ closed Daniel Webster Middle School. Barnes too spoke of restoring funding to public education, arguing that a closed school reflects poorly on a neighborhood:
“We chose this location because this closed school building represents the loss of hope and opportunity. Who would bring jobs to an area that closes schools?
Falk’s appearance and Barnes’ statement highlight a serious byproduct of Milwaukee’s culture of school choice. Schools close frequently in Milwaukee. They do by design.
The final set of reports from the School Choice Demonstration Project found that during the course of their five-year evaluation 36 private Milwaukee Parental Choice Program schools and 40 MPS schools closed their doors. There is evidence those schools were performing lower than schools that remain open, which on its face is a good thing for students.
Similarly, the built-in ability to quickly shut down a school that is not meeting expectations is what I find so appealing about the charter school model. As I have argued before, school reformers have yet to find a way to guarantee a school will be successful but have become adept at identifying those that are not.
However I would be foolish to argue shutting down a school does not have a larger social impact. Temple Geography professor Carolyn Adams put it well at a research presentation I recently attended (I am paraphrasing): People think twice about committing a crime or engaging in other socially undesirable activities if there is a school full of kids across the street. A boarded up schoolhouse provides no such deterrent.
Clearly Adams’ point has an audience in Milwaukee, Falk and Barnes would not be giving campaign speeches at abandoned schools if it did not. There really should be no need to answer the question I pose in the title, schools in Milwaukee (and throughout the state) ought to be education successes and community anchors. The failed neighborhood schools initiative is evidence you cannot have the latter without the former.
The easy first step is giving charter and private schools in Milwaukee better access to shuttered MPS buildings so that a closed school does not automatically make it an abandoned property. The much more difficult second step is getting to a point where having to close a school due to low-performance becomes a rare event.