Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: the Limits of Parent-driven Reform

Wisconsin Policy Research Institute
October 2007

Two findings in a new report commissioned by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute probably will not--sadly--come as much of a surprise: 1) many parents just aren't that engaged in their children's education, for reasons ranging from illness and job demands to lack of literacy skills and just plain apathy, and 2) parents who utilize school choice in urban areas usually do so for reasons other than academics. A third finding is more unexpected: parental involvement has not driven the substantive education reform that many had hoped for and the capacity for parent-driven reform is more limited than previously predicted, at least in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) district.

The study by David Dodenhoff included parents who exercised choice to select a school within Milwaukee Public Schools or a neighboring public district, not parents who select charter schools or use vouchers for private school. Although parent-driven reform did not produce the expected academic results, Dodenhoff does not call for the abandonment of open enrollment policies or intra-district choice efforts. Instead, he calls on the district to realize the full potential of parental involvement by getting more families involved in education choice and improving the information and resources available to parents. The report also suggests that MPS should embrace more radical reforms to achieve the changes it wants and needs--but does not identify what those reforms might be.

There is an underlying message in this report that is applicable to Ohio as parents exercise choice through charter schools and the state's voucher program. Parents will continue to make education decisions for their children based on factors like safety, school proximity to  home, loyalty to the school (I went to school there so it's good enough for my child) rather than on academic performance.

Policymakers and school choice advocates need to realize once and for all that school choice needs standards and accountability to deliver both market acceptance and academic improvements. School choice without standards and accountability will not close the achievement gap nor ultimately improve the life chances of children in the neediest schools and school districts.

More By Author