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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not Solving the Problem

by folkbum

I don't have a ton of time this morning, so this will be quick. But it's also easy for me to say: Neither the Bob Donovan nor the Michael Bonds proposal for fixing the crisis in the Milwaukee Public Schools will work. (This Alan Borsuk blog post has more specific details about their respective plans than he could get into the article.)

Bonds's ideas will probably save a little money short-term. But a million here or a million there--which is all most of his plan amounts to--is a drop in the bucket. Implement his plan fully and in two years, tops, we'll be right back here talking about what to do to avoid a 15% increase in the tax levy. That's without even any discussion as to the educational soundness of his plan--not all of which seems like a good idea. (Parents want to send their children to schools across town because that's where they see success and safety, for example.) In other words, Bonds's proposal seems only to be about saving that little bit of money, and not about anything radical that would produce different results from what many see as a broken system of public schools.

Donovan's plan is much more sweeping and addresses itself to K-12 education generally in the city, not just within the public schools. It is not limited to just saving money, but to trying to address that perception of failure. However, his plan suffers from the delusion that a re-organization of the players in this game of shuffleboard will stop the boat from sinking. I am a freaking broken record about this, I know, but the problems of Milwaukee's schools, public or not, are not schools problems but Milwaukee problems. There are decades of data to support this fact: Schools and districts with high concentrations of poverty do not succeed at the same rate as other schools or districts. Period. If the demographics of the children of the city of Milwaukee do not change, the educational outcomes are also unlikely to change.

It's not true that Donovan's plan is completely oblivious to this; I think there is one piece that could work to stimulate the kinds of changes that might produce different results long-term. It is the "Milwaukee Guarantee," as he calls it, making sure every MPS graduate has a job. If that could truly reduce unemployment in the city (which for African American men remains at well over 50%), then we could see a long-term change in some of the factors that make education in this city difficult--poverty, poor health care, transiency, crime rates, drug addiction, and so on. But that's not something that will make a profound difference starting tomorrow if we passed Donovan's plan today (and the state would be the ones passing the plan, as the Common Council doesn't have the authority to re-organize a Class I district).

My alderman, Tony Zielisnki, actually gets closest to something that might create real change in the educational outcomes in the city with this:
Ald. Tony Zielinski proposed a pilot program for assigning students who are habitually disruptive in classes at a specific school to “an alternative program associated specifically with that school.” The alternative programs would put emphasize “family preservation support systems,” in which specialists would work with students with the goal of getting to the root of problems behind misbehavior in school.
I've suggested before that a better use of, for example, Gates Foundation dollars would be investment in the families of this city, not in re-arranging its school buildings; in other words, address the Milwaukee problem, not the schools problems. For if we can identify some of the most profoundly challenging families--and streets and neighborhoods--and get in there with appropriate and unrelenting social support systems and job training and family counseling and adult literacy programs and rehab, we might be able to turn around the in-school performance of those children. The difficulty, of course, is that doing something like what Zielinski proposes or what I would propose if I were in charge takes more money, more investment, not less. This recent round of hand-wringing began, recall, with the idea that there just isn't enough money available for MPS to maintain its present level of services, let alone provide more.

That the debate is open is a good thing; let us hope, though, that those with the power to do something about it make smart decisions rather than cheap, short-sighted ones.

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