Monday, February 16, 2009

The Devil is in the Details

Are the problems facing Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) sufficiently intractable that a new governance structure is required? And, even if a new structure could produce better accountability and fiscal stewardship, would it result in improved educational outcomes?

The Forum's latest research, commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, attempts to provide insights into those and other questions by discussing significant school district governance changes adopted in large, urban school districts throughout the country.

Our report, entitled School District Governance Reform: The Devil is in the Details (click here for the full report), also provides a summary of lessons learned from other districts, with a particular focus on the experiences of districts that have implemented mayoral takeovers. Some of our key findings:

  • Governance reform happens over years, possibly requiring implementation in phases and constant revisions.

  • Dissolution of large, urban school districts is rare. Such an endeavor could exacerbate real or perceived racial inequities.

  • A mayor’s ability to achieve improvements is dependent on outside factors, including state policy, labor contracts, and constituent priorities, as well as personal factors such as the mayor’s experience, leadership ability, and political aspirations.

  • Governance reform does not happen in a vacuum. Political conditions, other educational reform efforts, and larger policy initiatives all interact with governance reform.

  • There are nearly as many models for integrated governance (and mayoral takeovers in particular) as there are districts that have attempted governance reform.

  • The impacts of integrated governance on a district’s fiscal stability are positive to mixed. While it is unlikely to provide increased funding overall, there is potential for such a reform to reduce administrative costs and increase spending in the classroom.

  • Integrated governance can result in some improvements in student performance, but local officials should not count on such a reform as a means of narrowing the achievement gap between high and low-performing schools.
The debate on whether and how to modify MPS' governance structure is likely to be contentious and prolonged. Thoughtful and objective review of the experiences of other districts hopefully will be an integral part of that debate.

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