Over 70% of Milwaukee residents give their public schools a grade of C or worse, according to Wisconsin Policy Research Institute polling of city residents who are unclear what should be done to improve schools most say have deteriorated over the past five years.
As part of an in-depth, multi-year project examining the state of K-12 education in Milwaukee, WPRI hired a University of Chicago professor to conduct extensive polling of city residents and their attitudes about a wide variety of education issues essential to the area’s health and future.
When asked who they hold responsible for poor performance, 64% of respondents said it was either the parents or the students themselves. Only 10% held teachers responsible, while only 5% blame the schools as a whole.
The poll finds that the American dream is alive in Milwaukee. Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents feel that students from poor families are as able, or more able, to learn academic material as students from wealthier families. Nearly seven of ten (68%) said they believe urban schools can improve regardless of poverty while 27% feel that schools cannot improve until the problems of poverty are solved first.
University of Chicago Political Science Professor William Howell conducted two separate surveys of city residents in 2012, one in March and a second in November. Each survey included slightly more than 600 city residents and responses were weighted according to a variety of socio-economic characteristics. Respondents were contacted through both landlines and cell phones, and the margin of error was between 5% and 6% for most questions.
The poll provided a decidedly mixed message to would-be reformers. On the one hand, the Milwaukee public is clearly unwilling to accept the status quo. When given the choice between fine-tuning or a major overhaul, 61% of respondents said education in Milwaukee needs a major overhaul. The response rose to 69% when the respondents were informed that over three-fourths of Milwaukee schools failed to meet state performance expectations.
The two most established reform ideas received support from the public. Fifty-seven percent favor Milwaukee’s school choice program (27% oppose) while 48% support charter schools (30% oppose). Seventy-four percent of respondents felt that charter schools should be funded at the same level as traditional public schools.
Yet Milwaukee’s enthusiasm for reform is tempered by what appears to be a more traditional attitude toward some aspects of school operations. Sixty-five percent of respondents oppose a longer school year and 63% oppose lengthening the school day. Forty-eight percent support students taking classes on-line, even when approved by the school district.
Barely half, 53%, said they felt either somewhat confident or very confident that the school board would do what is needed to improve student performance while 45% are not confident in the school board’s ability to improve student performance.
“This is the most comprehensive polling ever of Milwaukeeans’ attitudes about how the city’s children are educated, and there’s no more important issue,” said WPRI President George Lightbourn. “Teachers can take heart that their efforts are appreciated. But there’s widespread recognition that, despite the reforms implemented over the years, the schools are all too often still failing. It’s a long-standing, systemic problem. The good news is that city residents say things can get better. They have faith poverty can be overcome. And they have faith in teachers to help kids who, Milwaukeeans say, too often aren’t getting the help they need at home.”
Sixty-eight percent said they believe more spending will result in better student performance. This fundamental belief in the link between spending and quality likely explains why 77% think that public funding of Milwaukee Public Schools should be increased. If more money were made available from the state or federal government, 63% think it should be used to boost school spending while 34% feel it should be used to lower property taxes.
Milwaukeeans express strong support for teachers. Sixty-six percent said they would encourage their sons or daughters to become a schoolteacher in Milwaukee – a place over two-thirds of respondents say is more difficult to teach in than other districts. Sixty-nine percent said they would support higher pay for teachers who work in Milwaukee’s most challenging schools. Sixty-seven percent felt that poor teachers should receive added training and support while only 25% feel such teachers should be fired.
True to its union heritage, Milwaukee supports the teachers union. Fifty-seven percent said the union has a positive effect while 22% felt the union has a negative effect.
The November poll also asked what the public thought should be done with vacant MPS buildings. Nearly seven out of ten (69%) said the buildings should be sold or leased to choice or charter schools.
WPRI – a nonpartisan, not-for-profit think tank – has been conducting surveys on issues of importance to Wisconsinites for more than 20 years and is now commissioning Howell to independently conduct polls on a periodic basis.