Several MMAC initiatives focused on improving education in Milwaukee

As a projected jobs gap of 50,000 looms over Milwaukee throughout the next seven years, stronger ties between business leaders and education administrators have never been more critical.

“We are in a race for talent, and we have got to get more kids educated and proficient to the point where they can go to a two-year college, a four-year college or into an apprenticeship program,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which figured the gap estimate.

In this race for talent, the MMAC has positioned itself as a lead advocate. At its all-member meeting in October, the organization worked to rally more business support for education through a panel discussion of administrators from some of Milwaukee’s leading schools. It capped the program by ushering dozens of area students onstage to give faces to the futures that are at stake in the city, just as the city is at stake within these futures.

“We have slow migration here,” Sheehy said. “We have more people that migrate out than migrate in, and so (we’ve) got to get more people in the workforce and more people educated to participate in the workforce. It’s economic survival.”


Beyond touting its passion for education and the need for a skilled workforce, the MMAC has taken a collaborate approach toward a mission to steer more of the city’s 120,000-plus K-12th graders into high-performing schools.

“As a community, we are failing far too many of those kids,” said Sheehy, who outside of the MMAC serves on more than a handful of education-driven boards, both national and local. “We are not putting them in a position where they’re graduating from high school with a proficiency to enter college – a two-year or four-year – or enter the workforce.”


At the heart of the association’s focus on education is a mission to direct more children of low-income households into high-performing schools. In partnership with the nonprofit organization Schools that Can Milwaukee (STCM), the MMAC aims to have at least 20,000 kids enrolled in high-performing schools by the year 2020.

But that’s just first base, Sheehy said.

“The goal is a homerun, and a homerun is every kid graduating from high school, well positioned to go into a two-year or four-year college or an apprenticeship program,” Sheehy said. “And 20,000 kids would be first base in that goal.”

To make the initial strides toward first base, the MMAC has worked to ensure that Milwaukee-area parents have options among the public, voucher and charter schools available to their children to best suit their needs.

Part of the organization’s efforts has reinforced STCM surrounding three pathways – expanding high-performing schools, molding good schools into great schools and attracting outside education operators that have proven track records of effective teaching and learning.

In addition to helping bring the successful California-based charter operator Rocketship to Milwaukee last August with $2.5 million in fundraising, the association has played an instrumental role in introducing Butler-based GPS Education Partners’ hands-on manufacturing programming into the Milwaukee Public School System.

Another one of the MMAC’s education efforts has been working to raise $3.8 million by 2014 to grow the number of Teach For America teachers in public, voucher and charter school classrooms in Milwaukee.

And in yet another funding issue, the organization has pushed to equalize per pupil public funding among students in voucher, charter and public schools.

“Obviously, for these schools to be successful funding has got to be a part of it,” said Paul Sweeney, chairman of the MMAC’s education committee and a principal of Milwaukee-based PS Capital Partners LLC. “They need to have a reasonable number of dollars per pupil to run a successful school.”

An additional key to running a successful school, according to the MMAC, is a fair and reliable evaluation system that can compare students’ performance and progress among different schools.

With this sort of system in mind, the MMAC has been the primary driver behind a “common report card,” which would take the academic temperature of all schools receiving public funding in Milwaukee.

Using the common denominator of state-mandated tests, the common report card would ideally capture both student proficiency data at one time and growth in student performance throughout the school year. The data collectively could point to public, private and charter schools that are working as well as those that aren’t making the grade.

While the MMAC has already devised a formula for the common report card, its progress hinges on pending legislation that would create a unique student identifier for all publicly-funded students. With these identifiers, the process of collecting individual student data and maintaining accuracy would be much simpler and more sure-fire for the MMAC.

“If we are successful here, it’s one more tool that allows (the business community) to move beyond anecdotes on what works and why and where best to invest in our education ecosystem here,” said Steve Baas, vice president of governmental affairs at the MMAC.

The MMAC has drawn criticism among public school system advocates for being anti-public school. But as funding-fueled tension has continued to divide public, private and charter school sectors, Sheehy insists the city’s public schools, with nearly 80,000 students, are just as much of a priority to the MMAC as any private or charter school.

“We don’t care who’s getting the results,” Sheehy said. “We care how they’re getting the results and how we can expose other people to those results or how we can expand those schools that are getting the results.”

Dr. Gregory Thornton, superintendent of MPS, said he doesn’t view the MMAC as anti-public school. But he said he would like to find more opportunities to collaborate with the organization to accelerate the goal of guiding 20,000 kids into high-performing schools in the next seven years.

“We’re faster together than we are apart,” Thornton said.

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