By Charlie Dee and Michael Rosen
The proposal to dissolve the Milwaukee Public School Board and replace it with Mayoral control will not lead to improved student achievement because it does not correctly identify the problems facing MPS nor does it offer any educational solutions to those problems.
There are numerous reasons to oppose this, some that are very obvious.
• Citizens of Milwaukee just voted for a board with three new members, and that board selected a new Board Chair, Michael Bonds. This board should be given a chance to make necessary reforms in MPS.
• The proposal is not an educational plan. Takeover proponents have not proposed even one idea as to what they would do differently to improve the schools. They have ONLY proposed that the Mayor be allowed to take over the governance of them.
• Milwaukee's Mayor Tom Barrett has no qualifications, expertise or experience that would indicate a capacity to increase student achievement in Milwaukee.
The mayor has cited only two specific reasons for why he should be in charge of MPS: gaining increased federal dollars and the closing the “racial achievement gap” in Milwaukee.
He and the supporters of this take-over claim that the Obama administration will only consider Milwaukee for Race to the Top money if the mayor is in charge of the public schools. But Congresswoman Gwen Moore has put to rest that argument by revealing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan specifically told her that mayoral control is in no way a precondition to receiving federal money.
Milwaukee certainly has a racial achievement gap in education. But it also has a racial income gap, racial unemployment gap, racial teen pregnancy gap, racial neighborhood crime gap, and racial home lending gap. Yet Mayor Barrett has done little to solve those in his five years in office. Why would anyone think he can turn the education gap around with no plan but much power?
Then, on September 4, the mayor offered his first analysis of the racial gap in education in his “Barrett Report,” and, incredibly enough, Barrett blamed the gap on too many students going to the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC)! Barrett claimed as evidence of the “the Black-White workforce gap” and “the lack of workforce skills” the fact that twice as many MPS grads go “to MATC as compared to UW-Milwaukee.”
It is reprehensible that Mayor Barrett would so demean MATC and our students. At MATC, we close the workforce gap; we don’t increase it. This shows conclusively that Barrett shouldn’t be trusted to solve this gap by taking over MPS because he doesn’t have a clue about what the causes are.
Just as disturbing are the political forces that are pushing this change in governance for MPS. Put simply, they are enemies of public education that have lost the control they once had over the MPS. They now view a change in governance as the best way to get back in power.
Foremost among those pushing governance changes are the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJ-S) editorial board and Tim Sheehy, President of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce (MMAC). In the shadows lurks the right wing Bradley Foundation and its various tentacles, the Wisconsin Public Research Institute and Wisconsin Interest Magazine.
The Journal-Sentinel (MJ-S), Bradley Foundation and the MMAC have been major champions of the school voucher movement for twenty years, a movement that has drained many millions of dollars from the MPS without producing the promised educational improvements in its own schools or gains in MPS that were supposed to result from the “free market competition” of voucher schools.
The MJ-S, Bradley Foundation and Sheehy have either endorsed or financed pro-privatization candidates for the school board. For much of the past 16 years, their candidates had a majority on the MPS Board. They are the ones who hired the current MPS Superintendant, William Adrekopolous, and labeled any board member who tried to hold Adrekopolous accountable “as anti-reform.” They also promoted the hugely expensive Neighborhood Schools Initiative that has been a failure by every measure.
So the forces most vigorously pushing this governance change have a miserable but expensive track record when it comes to educational reform.
But they have very clear political agendas. Put simply, they don’t like the majority of the members of the Milwaukee School Board democratically elected by the citizens of Milwaukee. Keep in mind, the MJ-S and the MMAC made no critique of MPS governance when the candidates they endorsed, selected or funded were the elected majority of the MPS Board. When Bruce Thompson, Ken Johnson, Joe Danneker and Jeff Spence held the board chair, the MJ-S and the MMAC thought the governance system was working just fine.
So it is clear that their support for a governance change is not a principled stand – one predicated on a genuine researched-based belief that governance changes would result in delivering more effective education. Rather, it is a stand of sheer political opportunism: they haven’t been able to get their candidates elected democratically, so they want to change the rules of the game.
Further evidence of this opportunism is the fact that three of these forces, the MJ-S, Sheehy and the Bradley Foundation through its propaganda organ, Wisconsin Interest, joined by a cadre of Republican legislators, have called for a change in governance for MATC. Only in this case, they want to move from a board appointed by elected officials to a board elected by the public. Obviously, this is exactly the opposite from the change they want for MPS.
The only consistency in their position on elected versus appointed boards at MPS and MATC is that Sheehy and the MMAC, with editorial and reportorial support from the MJ-S, have tried and failed to get people hand-picked by Sheehy appointed to the MATC Board. Right on cue, Wisconsin Interest just published an attack on the appointed MATC Board, and Republican Senator Alberta Darling introduced a bill to change MATC governance. Their hope is that elections will provide them the opportunity to gain control of MATC just as they want to move away from elections in order to control the MPS Board.
Governance changes will not improve academic performance or close the racial achievement gap. Nor will politically motivated sound bites.
If the Mayor and Governor are sincere about their desire to improve the academic performance of Milwaukee children they should abandon their ill conceived governance proposal and focus on helping our beleaguered school system get the resources it needs to meet the challenges of educating a largely economically and educationally disadvantaged student body.
If we want to improve student achievement we need to empower students, parents and teachers, not disenfranchise them.
Charlie Dee is a professor of history and English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Executive Vice President of AFT Local 212
Michael Rosen is a professor of economics at MATC and the President of AFT Local 212