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Mayor Cavalier Johnson often talks about his goal to grow Milwaukee’s population to 1 million people.
This is a terrific, tangible objective and I love that he’s setting the bar high.
But the mayor seems to deliberately ignore one area of public policy that stands in the way of his goal: fixing the failures at Milwaukee Public Schools that destroy the city’s ability to attract families with children and well-paying businesses to locate here.
Since 2010, Milwaukee lost 727 adult residents – not a great trend. However, during the same time period, our under-18 population fell by a staggering 16,887. That’s enough to account for almost all of Milwaukee’s overall population decline.
We simply can’t ignore the fact that Milwaukee has become hostile to children.
MPS is the glaring problem.
The district’s own enrollment data show that the slow, decade-long drain of students – about 1,000 kids per year – dramatically accelerated over the past two years.
Poll after poll show that Milwaukee residents think the city’s schools are bad and getting worse, and that they’ve lost confidence in the leadership of MPS. Families have been voting with their feet – literally – by moving from the city or sending their kids to non-district schools.
Across the country, newly elected African American mayors such as Justin Bibb in Cleveland, London Breed in San Francisco and Eric Adams in New York City are leading the charge in addressing challenges faced by their cities’ public school systems. Only some of these leaders have a direct say in their city’s schools, but each is using the authority of their offices to call attention to the need to improve educational outcomes.
That bully pulpit is no small thing. Can you imagine the impact of a Milwaukee mayor actually uttering these words: “We have to actively accelerate the pace of change inside the district. … I will consider it a failure of mine as mayor if in the next decade we don’t improve the quality of learning in our school system.”
That’s a direct quote from Mayor Bibb in Cleveland. Mayors like Bibb who already have some power over public schools are using that power to appoint reform-minded leaders to key positions.
Milwaukee’s mayor has no formal control over schools. So perhaps Mayor Johnson can instead borrow from San Francisco Mayor London Breed during her city’s recent school board recall:
“Sadly, our school board’s priorities have often been severely misplaced. During such a difficult time, the decisions we make for our children will have long term impacts. Which is why it is so important to have leadership that will tackle these challenges head on. Our kids must come first. The board’s priorities have been misplaced, and I support … parents’ call for change.”
Breed and others who don’t directly control public schools are both seeking more formal authority and supporting efforts by parents and other stakeholders to address shortcomings.
Milwaukee deserves this same kind of vocal and bold leadership on K-12 education from Mayor Johnson.
But in his first 100 days, he’s said almost nothing about the sorry state of affairs at MPS – even as the district hemorrhages thousands of students, projects hundreds of millions of dollars of deficits and posts abysmal academic results.
Regrettably, our mayor seems content to adopt the absentee, “it’s not my job” ethos of his predecessor on the issue of schools.
While Mayor Johnson promised to “practically have a cot at the Capitol” to lobby for additional state dollars to pay for police and other public services, he’s remained silent as to the fewer than 5% of MPS students currently performing at grade level.
Likewise, we haven’t heard a peep from our city’s leader about the 40,000+ Milwaukee students – nearly half of all kids left in the city – who have already fled MPS to attend schools outside the system, and are among the lowest-funded students in the state.
These children receive thousands less in school funding than their peers in MPS, totaling an annual loss to Milwaukee schools of more than $125M.
While Mayor Johnson is lobbying in Madison, he should include an ask to make sure all Milwaukee students are getting their “fair share” from the state.
Meanwhile, the MPS school board maintains a transparently hand-in-glove relationship with the teacher union. The district no longer hides the fact that it exists for the primary benefit of its employees and only secondarily to provide educational services.
The district has no plan – not even an acknowledgment – of its enormous projected budget shortfall ($350M+ over the next five years). This gap dwarfs the city’s own financial deficit.
The “it’s not my job” ethos at City Hall needs to go. Why? Because when MPS goes belly-up, the city will be on the hook, and all of Mayor Johnson’s lobbying for a sales tax increase to shore up the city budget will be for naught.
Mayor Johnson simply can’t play the Barrett playbook and ignore schools for the next decade. The district must be fixed, now, and there is no other leader with the responsibility, political ability and moral authority to do it.
We are all rooting for our new mayor and we hope he prioritizes the policies that will make his 1 million resident objective come true. And while no one can predict the future, one thing’s a sure bet: So long as families keep fleeing the sinking ship of MPS, Milwaukee’s population – and its future – will be anchored down.
Dan Adams is a Milwaukee criminal defense attorney. He appears frequently in state media as a legal and political analyst. He can be contacted at Dan@DefenseWisconsin.com