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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More on mayoral control of MPS

by folkbum

So I'm sitting in the mandatory professional-development-on-your-prep-hour session last week at school, where we're being presented with this year's iteration of the "school improvement plan."

"It's important that you know about this plan, that you know the data," our trainer said, "because big changes are happening. The mayor just took financial control of our district away from the superintendent!" Cue the facepalm.

Reality, of course, is that two weeks back the Milwaukee Board of School Directors created a new Office of Accountability, sort of shifting a layer of the bureaucracy up a little bit in the org chart so that many of the financial services, including the auditors, report directly to the Board, instead of through the superintendent. The mayor, you'll note, does not appear in the story; this change is a long-term goal of takeover opponent and Board President Michael Bonds, who would have done it mayoral threat or not.

Now, I don't want to generalize to the whole district or the whole city based on one moment of (albeit significant) misunderstanding that I encountered from a central office employee--who, I will say, seemed grateful to be corrected on the matter. But I do not doubt that the stepped-up talk of mayoral takeovers is leading to far too many conversations like that one. And it is not helpful.

It's also not helpful, as Lisa Kaiser points out, that the leading news organization--whose editorial board is firmly in the takeover camp--is not offering an accurate picture of the, you know, news. Kaiser notes that the Journal Sentinel's story on Rep. Gwenn Moore's rally against the takeover leaves out salient facts, like how mayoral control is not one of the criteria for federal "Race to the Top" funds that the idea was hatched to pursue.

(Kaiser also wonders why the JS gives more space in that story to suburban Republican Leah Vukmir, rather than to the Democrats representing Milwaukee--and holding the legislative majorities in Madison--who were at Moore's rally. Um, duh--Vukmir's running for State Senate! Watch the endorsement page next October.)

The notion that this controversy is all Dem-on-Dem action (it's not; conservative business forces in the city and state are driving a lot of it) is the theme of Alan Borsuk's story this week. Wresting control of MPS away from an elected board is not a new idea, of course, or an exclusively Democratic one; former Governor Tommy! Thompson was all about taking over MPS for a few years back in the last century. And Dem-on-Dem action regarding reform in Milwaukee is not new, either; it was State Rep. Annette Polly Williams, Democrat of Milwaukee, who made the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program happen, along with other Good Democrats like Howard Fuller--though the voucher program has since been perverted and owned (literally, bought and paid for) by conservative interests.

But intra-party fights are always good for ratings, or something, and Borsuk delivers. He also tracks down a group called Democrats for Education Reform that is generally promoting mayoral takeovers. He notes, for example, that DFER is trying to organize in Milwaukee, holding a luncheon last week. I hate this: When your goal is to talk education reform and you hold a lunch meeting, guess who's not going to be on board? Teachers. Principals. Most parents. Students. Seriously: If you want to make me automatically oppose what you're asking me to support about education reform, invite me to a lunch meeting I can't attend because I'm busy, you know, educating children at the time.

Moreover, looking at DFER's "What We Stand For" page, it seems that of all the bullet points listed, the only thing we're not already doing in Milwaukee is mayoral control. I have said this over and over--if there's something worth trying, MPS has already tried it. Go ahead, name something--we're doing it, or have done it. Do you really think this one more thing will be the magic bullet? (Hint: It won't.)

DFER seems to be very much in favor of the New York model, noting that since Mayor Bloomberg's takeover (Bloomberg, although not technically at the time, was a Democrat, too [CORRECTED]), New York City Schools have seen some improvement. But New Yorker and education curmudgeon Diane Ravitch offers a hint as to why: "Under N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg," she writes, "spending on education has increased from $12.5 billion annually to $21 billion, or nearly $20,000 per child." That's an increase of two-thirds; it would be the equivalent of taking MPS's budget and adding $800 million, or about $10,000 per student, annually. If the state or the city or feds were willing to offer us, long-term (not one-time stimulus or "Race-to-the-Top" infusions) an extra $10k per child, I guarantee you the district would improve no matter who was in charge--the Board, the mayor, an inanimate carbon rod--as long as we could put that money toward things we know work. Things like intensive home interventions, smaller class sizes, one-to-one tutoring, and so on.

To date, of course, Mayor Tom Barrett has offered no such carrot. Or any plan at all, for that matter. The lack of a plan is just one problem with the takeover described by Charlie Dee and Michael Rosen here--it's a long piece, but well worth the read.

Finally, Patrick McIlheran--yes, again--writes in today's opinion section that a mayoral takeover is no big deal, because even though the people who will be running the schools day-to-day will be appointees, rather than directly elected the way the Board is now, people still vote for the mayor. That's pretty pedestrian, but he does make enough other stunning statements to make it worth looking at.

For example, this: "The Milwaukee teachers union, which now overwhelms any other organized interest in School Board races with its money and manpower, will immediately become the giant in mayoral elections." There are nine members on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors. Care to guess how many of those nine were supported by the union in their last contested election, with our "overwhelming" money and manpower? Two--Peter Blewett and Terry Falk. All hail the overwhelming power of the union!

And note his use of the word "now": A few years ago, when national pro-privatization groups targeted Milwaukee, including endorsements on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and big dumps of cash from the Joyces and Waltons, he couldn't have said that. In recent years, those forces have moved on to other things, leaving only the locals--like us teachers--worried about the elections.

Also: "Concentrating power hardly seems a solution. A more promising idea, as long as we're speculating, is breaking up the district into manageable pieces, each large enough to feed one high school, like most Wisconsin school districts. Whether this will work is unclear, but it may bring the decision-making closer to families that schools serve."

I'm guessing that a lot of us--I mean, it's true for myself--grew up in places where there was one high school, one or two junior highs, and a smattering of elementary schools in one district. That's the non-urban model of education all across the country. But MPS currently has about 26,000 high school students, and the large high schools serve on average about 1500 students. (Hamilton, the district's largest, serves 2200.) That would be 15 or 17 "districts" in McIlheran's plan, at current capacities. If we wanted something closer to eight districts with one high school in each--blowhard Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan floated that one last year--it would take a massive (read, expensive) effort to get high schools up to where they could handle 3000 students again, though some did in their distant pasts.

In either case, what will happen is that Milwaukee would go from the one worst district in the state to the worst six or seven or 13 districts in the state: "Small" is no more a plan to change what happens inside the classroom (and outside it, to better prepare students for inside) than "mayoral control" is. Same students, same parents, same teachers, same principals, same pressures of poverty and unemployment and poor health and violent crime and addiction and unstable families and .... well, you get the idea.

The chorus, as everyone knows by now, is fix Milwaukee first.

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