For 14 years, Spencer Korté was viewed as the maverick principal of Hi-Mount Community Elementary School in Milwaukee, where he turned over authority to parents and teachers to control 85 percent of the school’s budget.
When the Milwaukee school board in May 1999 made him the district’s unlikely choice to be its 30th superintendent and 8th since 1986, Korté set as his principal challenge the scaling up of Hi-Mount’s empowering decision-making model to 165 other schools. He went from someone who admittedly was “critical of superintendents” while heading the district’s pace-setting school to the helm of a 100,000-student urban system best known as home of the country’s biggest voucher program.
As such, Korté (pronounced kor-TAY) will be one of the most anxious observers of what is expected to be a far-reaching decision by the U.S. Supreme Court this month on the legality of state funding of student tuition at religious schools. The case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, deals with Cleveland’s voucher program, which has fewer than half of Milwaukee’s 10,500 students using vouchers.
Korté, carefully choosing his words, offers mixed feelings on the subject. “On the one hand, I’m not a constitutional scholar but I don’t understand how this model isn’t fraught with constitutional issues … over the separation of church and state.” At the same time, he concedes that “preserving viable choices for parents makes us very conscious of how we do. … If choice went away, we might backslide.”
His ambitious plans to compete with the voucher options, as well as with a dozen charter schools in Milwaukee and with state and federal laws allowing interdistrict transfers, center on strengthening the neighborhood schools by applying successful models that members of his staff have seen operating up close in cities such as Cincinnati, Houston and San Diego. To do that will require dismantling the complicated web of the city’s $58 million pupil transportation program that’s been around for years in an attempt at racial integration. At Hi-Mount, he reduced the 19 bus runs to two that solely served children with disabilities and funneled the savings into programs and staffing.
One local observer, veteran education reporter Alan Borsuk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, calls this “Spence’s big gamble” given the changing makeup of the nine-member school board. “The way political tides change so quickly, there’s constant change in the prevailing winds. He built a great school, but you need to remember it took eight to nine years before he had an impact.”
Modest progress is already apparent, the superintendent says, pointing to unexpected gains in the K-4 population last fall. “We beat the odds in some cases in winning students back,” he says.
Korté would apply the money saved from transportation to upgrade facilities, reduce class size and improve the quality of classroom instruction. Principals now are being trained on the district’s balanced literacy approach, which the superintendent says has all but eliminated the misguided argument over whole language versus phonics as the best method for teaching reading.
He recently convened a coalition of four large organizations in his city, including the chamber of commerce and the teachers’ union, to shift the public conversation from the politics of funding and to begin crafting systemic solutions for what he sees as the single most pressing need: teachers who are well prepared to succeed in urban classrooms. “We’re at the table to figure out what we can do together to move people to do better at teaching,” he says.
That, Korté says, was the lesson most easily transferred when he moved from site administrator to system leader. “Not every school in the district needs to take the Hi-Mount route. The real issue is quality teaching in every classroom and measurable results for every child.”
Korté, who grew up in a family of 10 near Atlantic City, N.J., came to the Milwaukee district 28 years ago to accept a central-office job in the special education division. He earlier worked as a government relations specialist for the Council of Exceptional Children in Washington, D.C.
In reaching his third anniversary on the job in May, Korté has succeeded in outlasting the tenure of the average urban superintendent in America and the mean of his seven Milwaukee predecessors. But the incumbent has no illusions about getting too fixed in place.
“You know the old Peace Corps saying, ‘This is the toughest job you’ll ever love?’ But it’s been quite a roller coaster ride,” he says. “That comes from the political madness and the tugs and pulls in 30 directions and the expectations that these problems ought to be fixed before the first commercial break.”
Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: email@example.com