Almost 30 years ago, Milwaukee’s business community threw its weight behind a hoped-for solution to improving educational outcomes in the city.
Stagnant graduation rates in Milwaukee Public Schools and even lower college completion rates pushed for-profit leaders into the contentious political waters of school choice.
“There was just a tremendous challenge in finding the talent (business leaders) needed, and there was a shortage of students going to two-year and four-year institutions,” said Tim Sheehy, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association. of Trade. “So we got involved because we thought giving parents a choice would open up more quality educational opportunities for their students.”
MMAC lobbied for a state law providing public funding to students enrolled in private voucher schools, paving the way for expanding school choice beyond the original pilot of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program initiated by state legislator Polly Williams. The group later advocated for the inclusion of religious schools and the removal of enrollment caps in choice programs and the creation of local authorizers for independent fee-paying public schools.
“At a critical moment in time, MMAC stepped up and provided financial support to hire organizers who were key to bringing parents and community members to the table to support passage of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” said the education reform advocate. Howard Fuller.
The decades since have seen the proliferation of charter and choice schools in the city, with those sectors now accounting for about 40% of Milwaukee’s school enrollment. If trends continue, it is expected that within a few years the city will have more children enrolled in those alternatives to traditional public schools than in the MSHP itself.
Yet against the backdrop of a different educational landscape, the business community today faces a set of circumstances similar to those of the 1990s: Fewer than 15% of public school students will earn a two- or four-year college. degree after graduation. With 40,000 openings among the top ten in-demand jobs in the metro area, Milwaukee faces serious talent pipeline challenges. The urgency among employers today is reuniting in advocating for a policy change they hope will boost high-performing schools and, ultimately, graduation rates in the city.
A growing coalition of business leaders says increased funding for the charter and charter sectors is needed for good schools to maintain and expand their operations.
In 2022, Milwaukee Public Schools received $14,987 in state and local funding per student each year, compared to $9,423 for public charter schools, $8,336 for private K-8 schools and $8,982 for charter schools. private 9-12. Choice and charter schools raise funds to make up the $5,000-$6,000 gap between themselves and their MPS counterparts, a solution that some education and for-profit leaders argue is unsustainable.
“We’re asking schools to rise to a challenge the size of Mount Everest, to serve disadvantaged students, and to do so without the oxygen of resources,” MMAC said in its latest K-12 education agenda.
Collegiate Academy of Dr. Howard Fuller, a public high school serving about 300 students on Milwaukee’s north side, raises at least $600,000 a year to cover minimal operating costs, Fuller said. At the Milwaukee Academy of Sciences public charter high school on the near west side, with 1,350 students, the funding gap is roughly $6 million. St. Marcus, a private K-8 voucher school, sets a fundraising goal of $1.28 million each year to fill the funding gap.
“The funding disparity (between sectors), that funding disparity, threatens the very existence of the education ecosystem that’s been built over all these years because it’s not sustainable,” Fuller said.
While there are high- and low-performing schools in each school sector, data released by the City Forward Collective shows that 80% of Milwaukee public charter schools and 81% of private voucher schools meet or exceed expectations, compared to 48% of MPS schools, based on school cards issued by the state. However, the same CFC report shows slightly higher performance overall among students in standard and select schools compared to MPS.
The establishment of the Preparatory Academy St. Augustine private K-8 voucher school in 2017 was made possible by a nearly $50 million investment from Husco International chairman Gus Ramirez and his family. The philanthropic infusion got Aug Prep going, but continued fundraising is also necessary to sustain operations, said Abby Andrietsch, the school’s president and chief executive officer.
The additional fundraising allows the school to have arts, athletics, STEM programming, five social workers this year and seven next year, she said.
“It’s thinking about the whole child. If we don’t have students who are able to be healthy and present in the classroom, they are not able to learn,” Andrietsch said. “For us, this additional investment is a critical part of how we succeed.”
The school, which serves primarily low-income and Hispanic students from Milwaukee’s south side, has received five-star ratings from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and is on track to become the largest city with a campus when it opens an independent elementary school. later this year.
“In the short term, the business community has grown, and we need it to continue to grow to support great schools throughout Milwaukee,” Andrietsch said. “…But one of the most important things we can ask business leaders and their partners to do is to advocate for that funding parity. The value of one student is no greater than the value of another, and we need the business community, which has a lot of influence on both sides of the aisle, to be a part of expressing that effort.”
Increasing charter and voucher school funding would reduce the burden on the philanthropic community, business leaders say.
Ray Manista, Northwestern Mutual’s executive vice president, chief legal compliance officer and secretary, said equity financing is a “top priority” for the life insurance company. One of the major corporate donors to Milwaukee schools, Northwestern Mutual, through its foundation, has invested $50 million over the past 25 years.
“While we encourage other corporations that call Milwaukee home to invest in quality education along with us, the model in which schools must continually rely on philanthropy and private funding to simply cover the costs of education per student is not it is stable,” said Manista.
MMAC’s 2023 policy agenda calls for the state to close the gap, which would equate to about $278 million in additional per-pupil funding support. In addition, the group advocates for an overall increase in funding for all sectors equal to at least the rate of inflation, which would be an investment of approximately $288 million.
Sheehy said he expects the state Legislature to take action this year that will begin to close the funding gap.
“I don’t expect this to be a one-and-done that will solve it all,” Sheehy said. “But the trajectory is that more kids are going to go to independent charter and private schools, not less, so if we don’t address this problem, this ship starts to sink.”
Sheehy said employers cannot afford not to act.
“It will take a long time to accomplish these policy goals, but … it is in enlightened self-interest to stay engaged, to improve the education and skill development of these K-12 students, because they are literally their future workforce, he said. “That’s 114,000 students in the city who are critical to filling the jobs of today and tomorrow.”
Fuller said he is encouraged by the for-profit sector’s advocacy work; other cities do not see the same level of involvement.
“Even some of the debates we have, I see as constructive because it means people still care,” Fuller said. “The one thing I can say about Milwaukee is that we haven’t given up, and I believe the business community has been a critical part of not giving up.”
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