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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, January 30, 2009

Ald. Donovan and Me

by folkbum

After my op-ed was published last Sunday, I waited anxiously for the responses to start rolling in. Yesterday and today saw letters to the editor published in the paper reacting to what I wrote. Letters editor and long-time friend of the blog Sonya Jongsma Knauss has often noted that though the paper does not run every letter it receives, it does try to run letters proportionally to the size of the response--i.e., if the letters are running 2-1 pro-con on an issue, they'll run 2 pro letters for every 1 con letter they run.

So far, the pro-con ratio for me seems to be 3-1, with four letters having been printed. Thursday's letters included a complimentary one by an MPS teacher; today's letters include a blast from the past, a friendly letter from an old Dean campaign ally I haven't heard from in years. (Also note that blog contributor Keith Schmitz is in the letters today, comparing tax cuts to chocolate. Chocolate lovers everywhere will be sending hate mail in 3 ... 2 ...)

But Thursday's letters also included something from Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan:
I wholeheartedly agree that Milwaukee has a good many issues in need of fixing. Not the least of which is a disgracefully high level of poverty in our inner city. Yet where I disagree is in his premise that poverty is the cause of the failure of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Let's get real. While I have no doubt that numerous social ills, often associated with poverty, place incredible challenges on MPS, until that system stops playing the blame game and this community fashions a school system capable of meeting all of its challenges, will anything meaningful change?
This blog is no fan of Donovan, and if he knows we exist then I would imagine that he's no fan of this blog. I called Donovan out by name in the long post here that my op-ed was adapted from; I also went after him in January's Compass column which ran across some of the same territory. He has every right to respond to that kind of direct attack, I get that.

But reading Donovan's response (I'm a little surprised he didn't put it in a press release), you get a picture-perfect view of what's wrong with people who have his attitude. It doesn't matter what the cause of any given problem is, the solution is solely the responsibility of MPS. My kids don't come to school? My fault. They don't do their homework? That's on me, too. They fight in the cafeteria, hallway, or classroom? No doubt I caused it. They vandalize cars in the parking lot? All me. (If you think I'm kidding about the extent of this attitude, read the comments to this thread at Badger Blogger--big fans of Ald. Donovan. Seriously.)

It frustrates me to no end, every day of my professional life, that I cannot snap my fingers and make my students' lives outside of school easier or more conducive to learning. But I can't. And I similarly cannot, with the resources that I am provided, do enough to overcome the challenges of their outside lives and catch them up to where they need to be.

This is the bane of every urban district in every major city in America. No one has, to use Donovan's terms, fashioned a school system capable of meeting all the challenges, capable of overcoming rampant poverty and its deleterious effects for the bulk of the students. The success stories are few and far between and, generally, damned expensive. (Here's one I read about recently.)

But Donovan's bloviations here also prompted the fourth of the letters to the editor, which came in this morning's paper:
Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan sees little or no correlation between poverty and poor performance by students in Milwaukee Public Schools []. He apparently feels that the system and teachers are to blame when children don't attend class regularly and fail to do the assigned work. He says crime rates have nothing to do with poverty.

This from a guy who has mercenaries patrolling three parts of his district because, apparently, the Milwaukee Police Department isn't doing as good of a job as expected by the citizens living there.
I believe the proper reaction is, as the kids say, "Oh, snap."

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