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Feds Decree How Milwaukee Public Schools Must Spend Money

Ohanian comment: How long will it take for locales to revolt and refuse to continue marching to the No Child Left Behind drumbeat?

MPS tutoring, a part of Bush education law, at half capacity

Thousands of Milwaukee children may not be in summer school this year because their school district has had to divert money to a new program required by federal law.

But that new program, which targets struggling schools under President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, is only about half full. And now it appears that some of the money diverted from summer school could go unused this summer.

The law requires that MPS offer "supplemental services," such as summer tutoring, to students attending 28 schools with low test scores. The plan was to take $11 million that would have been spent partly on summer school and use it to pay for the supplemental services and other efforts the law requires.

The district set aside money for summer tutoring for 1,800 students. As of Friday, a bit more than half that number had signed up for the extra help.

MPS already has extended the deadline for sign-ups once. The lack of response is particularly disturbing to district leaders because in March, to free up the funds for the supplemental services, they trimmed summer school from a program that served 17,000 students to one that will serve about 5,000 students.

"We really need to get the word out about these supplemental services," said Deb Lindsey, MPS director of research and assessment. "It's not clear to me why they are not signing up, because we've mailed parents invitations as well as a catalog describing the options. Maybe the number of choices is just overwhelming."

Parents can choose among 22 supplemental service providers, ranging from for-profit companies such as Kaplan K12 Learning Systems and The Princeton Review to MPS' own community learning centers.

But so far a law intended to empower parents appears to be causing confusion more than anything else.

Communication criticized
Becky Rehak, the outgoing president of the district's parent association, said she thinks MPS needs to be more aggressive communicating with parents, although she concedes that it's a daunting task.

"I don't think parents understand that the supplemental services are there and the differences in providers," she said. "There wasn't enough promotion to educate parents about the different choices they have by law."

The No Child Left Behind Act also allows parents to transfer their kids out of schools identified as "needing improvement," based on a complex formula. But Rehak said some parents have been misled by this as well, since the schools on the list are not necessarily those with the lowest test scores.

"It's very deceiving, especially to parents who don't understand that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side," she said. "They could unknowingly transfer their child into a school that should be on the list."

Patricia Sapwell, whose grandson Montrell Sharp attends Bradley Tech high school, one of the 28 schools in the program, said she remembers getting a note about the services. She decided not to enroll Sharp, a sophomore, since he earns good grades.

It makes sense to her that many families are not responding.

"I think most children are probably not giving the information to their parents or the parents laid it down somewhere and didn't think twice about it," she said. "I think a lot of poor families probably never really got the information."

Group also tries outreach
MPS officials aren't the only ones trying to reach parents.

The Milwaukee Chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options received a federal grant of $600,000 to educate parents about some of their new rights under the law in Milwaukee and three other cities.

The Milwaukee alliance, run by school voucher proponent Howard Fuller and his wife, Deborah McGriff, chief communications officer of Edison Schools Inc., sent out postcards to thousands of Milwaukee homes a few weeks ago, alerting parents to the supplemental services.

The group has also established a hotline parents can call for more information.

Fuller said half the hotline's calls come from confused parents who are not even eligible for the supplemental services because their children do not attend one of the 28 schools. For other parents, he said, the term "supplemental educational services" means very little.

"I think it's going to take some time to help people understand what this is all about," he said.

Lindsey said MPS is cooperating with the alliance, but that "we still have work to do in terms of communication."

Some people are more suspicious of the group.

"I think MPS could have gotten the word out more effectively itself," said Peter Blewett, a School Board member.

He also questioned the wisdom of "hiring a private group that has an agenda for privatizing education to do marketing for the district."

"Who is going to hold the alliance accountable for getting the word out?" he added.

Fuller said the alliance has heard from parents who say that MPS' mailings about the supplemental services too closely resemble other district mailings. Many parents simply threw them out, he added.

The alliance's postcards list the 28 schools that offer the special services, and state: "Parents, is your child's public school in need of improvement? If so, your child may be eligible for free tutoring. Also your child may be eligible to transfer to a better performing traditional public school or charter school."

Although Fuller and McGriff say they believe MPS is taking No Child Left Behind seriously, the law does seem to have created a new line in the sand in Milwaukee's education debate. Those who favor vouchers and other forms of school choice have tended to defend the law. And those who, like Blewett, are against vouchers have railed against it.

MPS officials are stuck somewhere in the middle, faced with the dismal possibility of adding dozens of schools to the list of ones identified for improvement when the state's list comes out June 30.

New state guidelines require that 95% of students in certain grades show up on testing days or their school could be added to the list.

"If this is the case, then virtually all of our high schools will suddenly be on the list this summer," said Lindsey.

— Sarah Carr
After draining summer school funds, program goes begging
Journal Sentinel
May 31, 2003


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