I generally like My State Senator, Tim Carpenter. But he, along with Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Pedro Colón, have an op-ed in the paper this morning defending their Milwaukee Public Schools takeover bill, and he's just wrong here.
The title of the op-ed is a compound imperative, and both parts are at least somewhat wrong: "MPS must improve; change in governance is necessary." First, I agree that MPS's results must improve; there is no question about that. I spend eight (sometimes ten or twelve) hours a day trying from my little corner of the district to make that happen. And while there are things that he district can and should be doing differently, there is nothing--as I have argued time and time again--that we can do inside the schools to produce large-scale, system-wide changes to the problems created by factors outside the schools. At best, tinkering inside the schools will provide small results at the margins, something shown over and over again by urban districts all across the country facing exactly the same issues MPS is.
Second, simply changing the governance of MPS--at least, changing it as proposed, which includes handing over vast power to the mayor of Milwaukee and weakening the elected board to the point of irrelevance--is not the solution. This is true for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that no proponent of a governance change has offered a single specific idea of how MPS would be different under new leadership, except to say that the leadership would be different. There's also the sad-but-true fact that districts under mayoral control generally do not see vast improvement, and the not sad but devastatingly true fact that voters in this city and this state roundly rejected municipal control of MPS at the ballot box last spring by defeating the candidate who endorsed it.
But what gets me about the argument here presented by Carpenter, Taylor, and Colón is that they blame MPS's failures on a lot of things that they, as legislators, have the power to change immediately without interfering in the governance structure of MPS.
For starters, I'll suggest the one thing they don't name, which is what I noted above and overandoverandoveragain on this blog: MPS students spend the vast majority of their lives outside of the system (between birth and the time she graduates at 18, a student spends just 15% of her life in school). As state legislators from the city of Milwaukee, these three have considerable power and authority to affect the other 85% of our students' lives. All of the things that correlate strongly to poor achievement, from poverty and homelessness to poor health care and transience, are things a legislature could be working on. These are not problems that will be solved by MPS.
However, here's the really galling part:
Additionally, for the past several years, MPS has had to rely on a one-time state budget amendment, one-time federal stimulus funds and even state borrowing from other funds just to remain afloat. This patchwork funding pattern cannot continue while outcomes are not improving. Due to the downturn in the economy, we have seen the state pull back on its commitment to fund two-thirds of educational costs.These are consecutive paragraphs of the op-ed, unedited and unaltered. They really did just go there: They slammed MPS's budget situation and then fingered two state programs as being significantly responsible for MPS's loss of funds. These state programs, designed, approved, implemented, and maintained by the state legislature, suck funds out of MPS that then these legislators have the nerve to complain about needing to replace.
To further complicate matters, the Milwaukee school choice funding flaw has burdened property taxpayers in Milwaukee, as has the open enrollment policy. According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the net aid reduction for MPS in 2009-'10 will be $44.4 million and in 2008-'09, the net aid transfer out of MPS under the open enrollment program was $21.7 million.
While yes, there have been some demographic changes in the city that have decreased enrollment, the primary culprits have been state legislators who say to students and parents, "We're not concerned with making sure MPS and the city it serves have what they need to succeed, so we'll just make it easier for you to go somewhere else." It's as if the state handed out coupons to Subway and then blamed Cousins for its declining sales.
If the legislature were serious about wanting to shore up MPS finances, they should stop handing out those coupons. End those programs. Stop offering incentives for the most-involved parents and the highest-achieving students to leave, and the financial (not to mention academic) picture looks better. We are, for example, supporting retirees from a 120,000-student district on revenues from 80,000 students--in large part because the state has facilitated declining enrollment. School climates have changed for the same reason. Special education enrollment ratios have ballooned. Buildings now stand half-empty that were once bustling hubs of neighborhood activity.
And, after this year's talk of dismantling the democratic leadership of MPS, the city is ready to blow apart at the seams.
There's a lot a legislature could do to help MPS, and, as Carpenter, Taylor, and Colón write, "show the federal government that we are serious about education reform and that Wisconsin is worthy of Race to the Top funds." Standing up to Arne Duncan, who is wrong about mayoral control, may not be the easiest way to do it. It would, however, be the best thing for Milwaukee and its children.