When Darienne Driver was appointed the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in 2014, it was meant to signal a new era for the district. School Board President Michael Bonds hailed her as a “visionary” who would create meaningful improvement for Milwaukee’s students. After four years, it’s hard to describe her tenure as successful.

Of course, not all blame should lay with Driver herself. The job of Milwaukee superintendent is, quite simply, hamstrung from pursuing most meaningful reform by a school board that is beholden to the interests of the teachers union. Expectations for big, bold reforms that could improve the academic outcomes for Milwaukee’s students weren’t all that likely from Driver, or anyone in that position. 

Nevertheless, how should Driver’s term be evaluated? Perhaps what will be emphasized most by Driver’s supporters is that all Milwaukee schools moved out of “failing” status on the state report card. However, it is important to emphasize that this was less a result of improvement in the schools than a result of changes to the report card that took student poverty into account. 

Proficiency levels in many MPS schools remain dismally low across many subject areas. While changes in the tests make long-term comparisons difficult, the table below shows proficiency in English over the past two years. Proficiency rates in English remain about half what they are in the rest of the state, a result that was little different on previous exams. The results for mathematics are no better.

Proficiency rates in English.

    Proficiency Rates, ELA MPS & Statewide Forward Exam

Putting aside the talking point on academic improvement, we are left with…..the implementation of school uniforms?  While uniforms are assuredly a step in the right direction, they are hardly the ceiling of what a visionary educator should be able to accomplish.

The negative things that happened during her tenure should not be ignored either. Driver was a strong opponent of school choice. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the manner in which MPS fought to the bitter end to prevent schools from becoming eligible to be purchased by high performing choice and charter operators. After the passage of a state law mandating MPS to sell vacant buildings to choice and charter schools, the district has played word games to prevent the properties from becoming eligible for sale, such as claiming vacant buildings were actually “district support.” 

Even when the state empowered Driver to bypass the school board, she failed to take action. Under the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, she was permitted to take over failing MPS schools and make substantial changes to the manner in which they were run, including turning them into charter schools. Yet she did not use that power once. 

The failure of an ostensibly reform-minded superintendent to create significant change in Wisconsin’s school district most in need of that change should suggest that change within MPS is unlikely without the buy-in of the school board or a wholesale takeover of the district at the state level. 

In the absence of change within MPS, it is vital that Milwaukee’s choice and charter sector continue to be provided with the tools they need to succeed. These schools represent a path forward for families who would otherwise be stuck under the stagnation of a school system unwilling or unable to make bold reforms.

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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