Why is MMSD Losing Students?

There has been lots of news out of the Madison School District lately. I’d like to focus on three stories that are interrelated.

The first is the reinstatement of Sennett Middle School Principal Jeffrey Copeland. I’ve written about that extensively, so I won’t go over the details here, but his return is a good thing. Copeland had been credited with restoring order to his school before he was fired over a minor infraction (if it was any infraction at all) and the School Board had the good sense to reverse an ill-considered decision by the central administration.

The next story is about the decline in MMSD enrollment. The District is rightly concerned about that and it also understands that it needs to get a better feel for exactly what’s going on. While it’s true that there is something of a baby bust at work here, it’s also true that Madison is growing. The Board needs to get more demographic data to better understand how those two things — a smaller school age cohort nationally but a growing population locally — are interacting.

And the third story is an ongoing debate about stand alone honors classes. The administration and most of the Board want to eliminate them in favor of honors work that can be done as part of regular classes. The Board had a spirited debate about that last night.

These things are all related because they go to the health and quality of the Madison public schools. MMSD is losing enrollment in part because more parents are transferring their kids out of the system than into it. The Board wants more data on that. They suggest doing exit and entry interviews to get a better handle on why parents are opting out or in.

That’s fine, but the net out migration is a key problem. It could be related to lack of discipline and good order in the schools. That’s why putting Copeland back to work was so important. It sends the message that the Board cares about this issue. Now let’s see what Copeland can do in a full semester next year. Maybe he has approaches and answers that can be replicated throughout the District.

Laura Simkin

The out migration may also be worsened if the Board goes ahead with eliminating stand alone honors courses. While one teacher at last night’s meeting said that mainstream class honors work is just as rigorous, I’m skeptical. It seems to me that being in an environment with other top students would challenge and sharpen everyone in the class and better prepare them for college. I want to know more about that, but it seems like eliminating those courses would be a mistake.

It was dilution of advanced high school programming in San Francisco that caused a revolt which resulted in the recall of school board members there. I don’t see anything like that happening here, but what I worry about is parents of bright students quietly opting out of the District.

Christina Gomez Schmidt

Nothing is more important to the city than its schools. When they’re losing market share that’s bad for everyone whether we have kids in school or not. The Board is right to ask for more data on the loss in enrollment. We need to understand that better. The Board was right to reinstate Copeland, but that has to be part of a broader move to empower teachers and other adults in our schools and to reestablish good order.

And those Board members — Christina Gomez Schmidt and Laura Simkin — who want to think through the elimination of stand alone honors are also doing the right thing.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Why is MMSD Losing Students?

  1. “exit and entry interviews to get a better handle on why parents are opting out or in.”

    That’s good in theory but unlikely to provide honest answers. Parents will rationalize their choices to avoid looking like racists or (gasp!) conservatives.

    How does Ali Muldrow justify not having her kid(s) in MMSD?


    1. Wouldn’t it be nice if we liberals could explain MMSD losing students with a simple answer like racist whites don’t want their kids around non-whites or conservatives don’t want to have their kids supposedly brainwashed by “liberal” teachers. Sorry, but that’s only small fraction of what’s happening. All parents want their kids in a safe environment, where learning is the focus, not misbehavior. Many non-white parents are pulling their kids out of MMSD for this very reason. They want their kids to succeed and be surrounded by peers going in a positive direction. I’m one of those parents.

      I’m a liberal who’s always been very supportive of public education, but my children’s future is too important for me to overlook the serious problems with the MMSD these days. I could provide countless anecdotes, but suffice it to say that this isn’t just an exodus of white students as you made clear with your Ali Muldrow example.


  2. Dave
    The outer edges of Madison are mostly in suburban school districts. I’m guessing that much of the growth in families with children is in those parts of the city.


  3. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. MMSD school board is in denial and able to hide behind their governance and to be expected outcry for more equitable funding, a better funding formula, or more state aid. All arguments MPS and Green Bay have been making for years as they continue their descent to the cellar of Wisconsin Schools.

    Madison Schools, one of the most educated, prosperous communities in the nation, can’t work won’t fix their public schools.

    Open enrollment was designed to work on a market based approach to enrollment. It is working exactly as designed. Parents have the option to pull out of their local district and open enroll into another – usually neighboring district that in their perspective meets their child’s needs more than their local district. Accordingly a portion of the funds that are allocated to that child are then transferred from the sender district to the new district. I am surprised it took so long for this issue to be faced by MMSD.

    Parents are opting out of MMSD for their own reasons and exit interviews are necessary but not sufficient. Once confidence starts to wane among parents that are empowered to move their child to another district or a private/micro/home school situation, the cat is out of the bag. It also becomes self-fulfilling as parents talk and learn more about their various options. Finally, some just pack up and move to the district of their choice if they have such means. Over time, these empowered parents are a net loss to the district. They often are not the squeaky wheels but are the ones that help create the school culture that keeps their and other kids motivated in the school. The growth in private schools, for profit schools, and micro/home schools in Madison is one of the numbers the board needs to face. Watch for more private schools options including non faith based schools to pop up in Madison as the market for students increases.

    Madison is increasingly looking like Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha, Waukesha – where empowered parents opt out and that have the means to do so join them cascade in numbers. It also is working as the legislators designed back 20 years ago that if the economic pain is sharp enough, the powers that be including the superintendent and board/union make the decisions to right the ship. MPS is the poster child of a district devastated by Open Enrollment and is propped up. Beloit is as well. See the interim’s superintendent comments from October where he chastised the board for mismanagement and being basically bankrupt except for COVID related funding. He is no longer there of course but his comments are worth reading.

    Madison doesn’t need a big task force to identify the problems, symptoms or issues. They know what they are. They don’t need the task force to identify the solutions. Other communities with medium to large districts have identified those too. Madison needs to move back to a more centric approach to education, determine what the parents want, not what the adults working in the schools want, and make adjustments. A board brainstorming solutions at a meeting is a board that is leaderless and trying to reinvent the wheel.

    This is a resolvable problem if the District Admin and Board are willing to take a hard look at what the parents want school by school and make the adjustments. Studying it just lets the board off the hook and eventually help them find a way to pin it on the administration rather than accepting their responsibility to govern on behalf of all residents, but keep in mind the parents choosing or opting out of MMSD are their bread and butter for revenue. They can learn well from other districts. Find a medium metro city school district that has solved this problem and try some of their successful solutions. Don’t brainstorm, act.

    Otherwise they can study the problem and watch the parents vote with their feet and see more Madison funds and empowered parents move their residence or their student to Verona/Oregon/Monona Grove/Sun Prairie/ Deforest/Waunakee/etc not to mention the growing private and independent school markets.


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