Northwestern Mutual CEO rebukes MPS, pledges support to charter, private schools

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In a rebuke of Milwaukee Public Schools, Northwestern Mutual chief executive officer John Schlifske said the Milwaukee-based life insurance company is giving $750,000 to support high-quality K-12 schools in the city.

Schlifske announced the donation in an op-ed published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in which he criticized the underperformance of MPS schools, and its school board and Milwaukee Teachers Education Association’s efforts to “undermine” one of the district’s successful charter schools networks, Milwaukee College Prep.

MCP, which operates four campuses and has 2,000 students, announced it would cut ties with MPS following a financial dispute with the district and plans to join the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as its charter authorizer.

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Schlifske blamed MPS for not working to retain MCP, saying the district wants to “eliminate the competition” with a charter school.

“Northwestern Mutual is the largest single property taxpayer in the city, and we are proud to invest in our corporate hometown. We support and invest in high-quality schools. But as a stakeholder, we just don’t see decisions being made to optimize student success at MPS,” Schlifske wrote.

While acknowledging that quality schools exist across sectors – including in MPS, public charters and private schools – Schlifske said there are far fewer in the public district than in choice or charter systems.

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Critics of school choice say charter and private voucher schools divert tax dollars away from public schools and harm them as a result; proponents say families benefit from having more educational options.

Schlifske said Northwestern Mutual is making a “strategic shift” in the way it supports education in Milwaukee by focusing exclusively on growing quality schools, adding that the company would seek out other philanthropic and business leaders to join the effort.

Other Milwaukee business leaders showed their support for Schlifske’s comments on social media, including Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt who said his op-ed was an indictment of the MTEA, MPS board, mayor Tom Barrett, city Common Council, the media and Milwaukee business community.

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 HUSCO CEO and education advocate Austin Ramirez also tweeted his support.

Northwestern Mutual’s $750,000 donation to City Forward Collective, an organization that launched in 2019 out of the merger of Milwaukee nonprofits Partners Advancing Values in Education and Schools That Can Milwaukee, will support the goal of adding 5,000 seats in high-quality Milwaukee schools across the charter, private and public sectors over the next three years, Schlifske said.

City Forward Collective spokesman Isral DeBruin said the gift will fund its citywide talent development – which supports all school sectors, including MPS – as well as its efforts around the “expansion, replication and incubation of high-quality schools.”

The investment in creating more high-quality seats will be limited to schools that operate with autonomy over their spending, program and staffing decisions, DeBruin said.

Over the past 25 years, Northwestern Mutual has committed roughly $53 million in education initiatives, including $2.5 million last fall to a host of Milwaukee charter, private and public schools.

In October 2020, Northwestern Mutual announced a $100,000 commitment to City Forward Collective and MPS to support wireless mobile hotspots and home internet services while students were learning remotely.

Schlifske was also involved with Milwaukee Succeeds – a collaborative that focuses on improving education outcomes, including readying children for kindergarten, secondary school, and college and career – previously serving as its co-chair.

Representatives with MPS couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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