School choices are the key to Milwaukee’s economic competitiveness

    The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) represents thousands of employers in the greater Milwaukee area. These companies provide jobs for over 300,000 of the region’s citizens and face a challenging global environment in which they work to produce a product or service that can compete in that marketplace.

    To be competitive, they require bright, talented, and well educated people who are life-long learners. As such, the MMAC more than anyone appreciates the role that our largest local provider of educational services, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), plays in providing the educational foundation critical to the success of our members, this community and our future.

    However, the world is not standing still. While other regions across the globe are hard at work competing with us, we face some stark statistics:

    • Today, more than 160,000 of the region’s adult residents do not have a high school degree.
    • Only 18 percent of the city’s residents own a college degree. (By example in Seattle and San Francisco it’s nearly half, Minneapolis 40 percent, Omaha 30 percent, Chicago 27 percent.)
    • Only 24 percent of black males in Milwaukee graduate with their age group.
    • 50 percent was the best rate at which the last 3 freshman cohorts in MPS enrolled in their senior year.
    • 83 percent of MPS graduates enrolling in UWM are taking remedial courses, and after 6 years only 38 percent have graduated or are still in school.

    The message is clear: We need to do better. Doing better is what motivated the MMAC to support legislation in 1994 to give low income parents a wider choice of educational options.


    Reaching at-risk, low-income kids is not easy. The schools that have a fighting chance with these kids are the schools that have a really good leader, a committed team of teachers, accountability, consequences and, in addition, have more time with the kids.  Under its current structure, funding, contracts, rules, MPS cannot do this on its own, and cannot change fast enough to reach all of the kids most in need. 

    Our support for giving parents the ability to choose where their children get an education is premised on our belief that this system will give more students greater access to a broader array of high performing schools; thus increasing the number of kids who graduate with the skills to be successful in the workplace. Our belief has been strengthened as the choice and charter policies we have supported have led to the growth of some outstanding schools.

    For example:

    • CEO Leadership Academy: 199 students, 100 percent African-American, 98 percent at or near poverty, 92 percent attendance, about 85 percent of graduates accepted to college.
    • St. Marcus: 306 students, 85 percent minority, 85 percent at or near poverty, eighth grade students proficient or advanced in reading 95 percent; math 100 percent; language 82 percent.
    • St. Anthony: 1,000 students, 98 percent Hispanic, 95 percent non-native speakers, 99 percent at or near poverty, new students third grade WKCE reading at proficient and advanced 20 percent, after one year 33 percent, more than one year 54 percent, eighth grade WKCE reading proficient and advanced, new 16 percent, one year 29 percent, more than a year 65 percent.
    • Notre Dame Middle School: 120 students, all low-income, graduation rates substantially above average and 75 percent attend college.

    Giving parents choices doesn’t guarantee everyone will make a good choice, but the dramatic growth in the number parents utilizing choice and charter school options suggests that our community is better equipped to reach our goal of educating more students with these school choices than we are without them.


    This is not to say that there are not high-performing schools in MPS. It is to say that our students are better served by increased access to more high-performing schools anywhere we can find them – in MPS, in choice, and through charters.

    Our support for school choice does not mean opposition to MPS, though choice opponents often try to put us in that box. The MMAC has invested over $15 million in scholarships for kids who attend the poorest high schools in MPS, we helped attract over $18 million in funding from the Gates Foundation for high school reform in MPS and we supported the New Leaders for New Schools program.

    However, after spending and advocating for tens of million of dollars over the past decade to support and promote MPS schools, we believe it is time for us to make a comparably modest investment in highlighting the value of educational options to Milwaukee’s economic landscape. 

    Giving increased school choice to parents is not a passing fad for us. It is something we view as a matter of economic life or death for our region. There is no organization or special interest group out there to promote the value of parent choice in education as an economic asset. That is why as long as there are legislators who try and destroy the program we will need to support it; and we will support it as long as we see results. 

    At the MMAC, we hope our educational campaign this spring will raise awareness of this asset. I urge you to go to our web site,, and learn more about the array of quality education options – choice schools, charter schools and MPS schools – that make Milwaukee unique and provide our region its best hope for an economically successful future.

    Tim Sheehy is president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

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