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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What would it take?

by folkbum

I think I have made it pretty clear that I oppose the current effort--if you can call it an effort, as it seems, so far, all talk and no action--to place control of the Milwaukee Public Schools in the hands of the mayor. I think I have pretty well laid out my reasons: the public voted down a similar plan in the spring election for State Superintendent; the mayor hasn't managed to fix in the city the same problems he's gunning for in the schools; there is a real and dangerous divide already forming along racial lines over the issue that could tear this city apart; claims of success in other districts under municipal control tend to be inflated or illusory; the primary impetus for the move seems to be the erroneous assumption that we have to do it to get the "race to the top" funds the feds have promised.

But I'm not an unreasonable man, and I'd like to believe that if a solid case for a governance change came my way I could be convinced. I haven't seen that case yet, and I don't have such an aggrandized sense of self that I wait daily for the phone to ring with Mayor Barrett on the other line asking me what it would take. However, I feel that, since I have in my head been developing a list of, as it were, demands, it seems like I ought to share them.

And, since later today I go tape the 4th Street Forum episode on MPS reform, I'm running out of time to put this forward. So. What would it take?

First and foremost, as I alluded to earlier, Tom Barrett can't run for governor. Bruce Murphy, a pro-takeover guy, makes the case that it would actually be a great campaign point for Barrett for a variety of reasons. I disagree. In my earlier post, I make it clear that at least this Milwaukeean (and MPS teacher) sees this as part of a crap-on-Milwaukee strategy. Think of it as Barrett's Sista Souldja moment; out-state voters won't vote for a Milaukeean unless that Milwaukeean can blame Milwaukee as much as they do.

More importantly, Barrett's asking for a great deal of not just authority but responsibility to be placed in his office. If he's serious about exercising that authority and living up to that responsibility, he needs to make a commitment to see the process through. If he can't do that, I'm not sure how we can take him seriously.

Second, something needs to be in it for us. In places where municipal control hasn't been such a disaster that the voters haven't taken it back--I'm looking at you, Detroit!--the city has offered its resources to help. In the most complete written list of ideas the mayor has offered to date (at least, that I know of; I'm happy to see something else if it's out there) there is nothing from his side of the bargain on the table.

I would be happy to see anything, here, whether it's the city picking up the tab for stationing MPD resource officers in schools or a promise to put a public health nurse in every building. Something like partnering a city social worker with every school social worker would literally double the manpower in one of the most difficult--but most important--positions in MPS. Barrett could offer to bring city and school unions together to increase bargaining power for health care and pensions, or to supplement and expand the district's recreation division. Something. But we've gotten nothing from Barrett on that front, at all, in theory or in his recent budget proposal.

A simple and perhaps effective approach would be to pair the city's and the district's resources on combatting the kinds of problems highlighted in this report (.pdf) by researchers at UW-Milwaukee, which is all about neighborhood and community factors that affect children and their ability to succeed later in school--things like unemployment, early child care issues, child safety, crime rates, and housing challenges. These are things far outside of the control of the schools, but that have a tremendous impact on how hard it is for schools to do their jobs well. These are, however, things the city could be working on; a commitment from the mayor, accompanied by some real action on his part, would be a positive sign. (For more on the report, see the UWM page; BloggingMPS also has three posts up, with links to a video presentation: 1 2 3.)

Third, Barrett would have to do something to pre-empt the inevitable racial schism his proposal seems to be creating. He needs the African American and Latino communities to be partners with him if he wants schools to succeed, but lines are being drawn that call the idea of unity into serious question. The NACCP, MICAH, and other groups have been squarely against the takeover; even Pedro Colon, fan of reform, is unwilling to cede full control to the mayor. Barrett needs to bring them back if he wants to be successful here. Barrett can do this in a number of ways; one easy one would be to call together a council of advisors from the community. If he plans to appoint a nine-member school board, ask this council to give him five or six names, as he appoints the other three or four. Give this council a say in selecting the superintendent, too.

In the end, I don't see all or, really, any of this happening. I'm actually quite surprised that Tom Barrett hasn't announced his gubernatorial run by now. But this is what it would take to get me on board. Until then, I remain opposed.

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