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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When the second sentence is a bald lie, why should we read further?

by folkbum

Here are the first two sentences of this morning's editorial--not op-ed, mind you, but the piece bearing the imprimatur of the editorial board of the largest daily newspaper in the state--in favor, again, of wresting control of the Milwaukee Public Schools from the people and giving it to the mayor:
Over the next couple of months, the state Legislature will decide whether to change the governance of Milwaukee Public Schools to mayoral control. This would allow the state's largest district to snag much needed Race to the Top funding.
As the title of this post suggests, that second sentence is flat-out false. First, the "Race to the Top" funds are to be distributed to states, not to individual school districts like MPS. Second, mayoral control of urban districts is not a precondition to getting the funds. Milwaukee's Congresswoman Gwenn Moore has tried to publicize this fact, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seems not to care.

The fourth sentence of the editorial isn't much better; after describing the immediate effects of a mayoral takeover--Mayor Barrett's appointment of a new school board and superintendent--the editorial says, "In other words, this would dissolve a system that has allowed for far too long one of the widest achievement gaps in the country between blacks and whites."

No, no, no. It would not dissolve the system. The system is teachers, principals, students, parents. The system is curricula, textbooks, buildings, programs. The system is thousands of dedicated professionals fighting against the overwhelming influence of poverty, unemployment, poor health, unstable families, and more. All of that stays. The change the editorial board supports is ten people at the top. The ten most talented, charismatic, and effective leaders in the state--in the country!--would have a very hard time fixing the academic achievement gap while the mayor and other city leaders allow Milwaukee's nation-leading racial gaps in housing, employment, crime, income, and imprisonment rate to fester.

Sentence six is a bother, as well: "The sweeping changes needed to prepare graduates for a global economy are not attainable under the current structure," the editorial board somberly intones. In an ideal world, they might then go on to name some specific changes that they hope to see implemented by the mayor, or at least to detail some of the proposed changes scuttled by the "current structure" leaving our graduates unprepared. But they offer no specifics, suggest no changes, propose no new course of action.

Which is kind of funny, because that's exactly the same level of detail we've gotten from the mayor, Governor Doyle, and state Superintendent Tony Evers. Beyond "put the mayor in charge," there's a great deal of nothing. If the mayor were out there saying, "Put me in charge, and I'll do X, Y, and Z," then maybe we'd have something to talk about. But the mayor, et al., and his backers on the MJS editorial board presume that ten new people at the top is the only change worth planning for.

Today's editorial goes on to offer "rebuttals" to arguments against mayoral control, and some of those rebuttals themselves are iffy. For example, they do try to rebut the "no plan" argument, and they just sound ridiculous doing so. "In our book, getting a traditionally ineffectual board out of the way is a plan," they say, their italics. They trust the mayor to "hire the best educator possible" to run the system, and then let that guy come up with a plan.

Never mind, of course, that current MPS superintendent William Andrekopoulos was widely viewed as "the best educator" in Milwaukee for his work as principal at a city middle school, and he has largely been given free reign by the board over the last seven years. His immediate predecessor fit the same profile--successful principal, bold reform plan, free reign from the board. Clearly, "hire the best educator" is also not a plan.

The editorial board attempts to rebut the fix-the-city-first argument that I make so often. Watch the squirming:
Many of these social ills are directly tied to the district's longstanding lackluster performance. As long as more than 70% of the district's 10th-graders are not proficient in reading and fewer than 40% of MPS graduates enroll in post-secondary programs within a year of graduation, these social ills will persist. But, OK, say the reverse is more the case--that poverty causes the lack of proper educational outcomes. Forget the chicken-or-egg argument; wouldn't one person in charge best be able to handle these problems more holistically?
Got that? They say, "Low achievement causes (or at least perpetuates) poverty!" But if someone were to point out the documented causative relationship between high poverty and low student achievement, they say "Forget what causes what; just put one guy in charge!"

"Barrett," they go on, "whether he deserves it or not, gets the blame. Give him the responsibility." Blame for what? For the schools? He most certainly does not take the blame for the problems in our schools; no, that's usually teachers like me. For city crime? poverty? economics? I don't believe I have ever seen this editorial board lay one ounce of blame at the mayor's feet for those things. He's a freakin hero now, don't you know that? Blame. Hah!

The editorial board also claims that other mayor-controlled school districts are successful. The problem is that Chicago (pdf) has not improved, New York increased its per-student spending by 1/3 to spur results, Boston has needed bailouts from the city to make its budget balance. And they don't mention notable failures like Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

Finally, the editorial board avoids the race issue by saying, "wouldn't it be racist to allow [non-white] children to continue under a system that has failed them so often for so long?" However, a bunch of white guys--and I am a white guy, so I got nothing against white guys in general--a bunch of white guys taking over a mostly minority district, with the help of the white (and over the objections of the non-white) guys and gals of the legislature is not going to be seen as benign, whatever the intent. The rifts are already starting to form, with current school board President Michael Bonds walking away from the mayor's MPS advisory group and legislators like Polly Williams, Pedro Colon, and Gwenn Moore staking out opposition.

Any significant change to the structure within MPS, let alone its governance, will have to come with the support and cooperation of the community and its leaders. This is not the way to secure that cooperation. The fabric of this community will be torn by a takeover and it will not be an easy thing to repair.

This certain division, by the way, is perhaps the strongest argument against the takeover, from where I sit. A takeover is not a prerequisite for or guarantee of federal funds; the history of such takeovers is at best mixed; and the conditions in Milwaukee that produce low academic achievement are generally outside of schools' control--these suggest no great benefit to the takeover. And yet we know the significant negative effect, the deepening of racial divides in this already-segregated community.

It is not worth it. And when the idea's supporters are reduced to outright lies when pushing the idea, well, that's a bad sign, too.

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