Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

November 22, 2009

Eugene Kane Agrees Opposition To Barrett’s Takeover Is Strong But Predicts Change Of Some Sort Is Coming

Filed under: MPS Governance Debate — millerlf @ 5:15 pm

Posted: Nov. 21, 2009

Some people don’t believe a recent poll that suggested widespread opposition to a proposed mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Not me.

The People Speak Poll, partly sponsored by the Public Policy Forum, found 57% of residents in a four-county area were opposed to the MPS takeover plan, with 43% in favor. An aide to Mayor Tom Barrett questioned those results, but according to my own informal survey on the issue, the numbers seem just about right.

In fact, just focusing on Milwaukee, you would have to agree with MPS board President Michael Bonds’ assertion that opposition to the plan might be even higher.

This is what happens when people feel they don’t have all the facts.

My conclusion is based on numerous conversations with Milwaukee parents, teachers and observers who have weighed in since Barrett and Gov. Jim Doyle first floated the idea over the summer. These are people who have watched the MPS mayoral takeover plan proceed with such lightning speed that a bill has already been introduced in Madison by state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and others.

When government moves that quickly, it makes some people wonder if “the fix is in.”

State Sen. G. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) is co-sponsor of another bill that would restructure MPS but would give only limited power to the mayor. Coggs said his bill – co-sponsored by Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby – was not meant as a takeover but rather a “partnership” so that the current MPS leadership could continue improvements set in motion under Bonds.

“I think there has been incremental change under Bonds’ leadership,” Coggs said. “Our proposal seeks accountability along with some checks and balances, and it also gives the mayor a role for the first time in important school district issues.”

Clearly, some members of the opposition have problems giving Barrett unilateral power to appoint the next superintendent under the MPS takeover plan favored by Barrett and Doyle. Coggs suggested that could create problems in attracting top-notch superintendents.

“If the next superintendent is not a ‘yes person,’ then the mayor could just fire him,” he said.

Coggs raised the idea that Barrett might not even be the one who ultimately wields that power. If Barrett wins the race for governor, for example, mayoral control could end up in the hands of an unknown candidate at this point who might not have the same best interests at heart for Milwaukee’s public school students.

In fact, Coggs questioned whether any mayor – including Barrett – has the background in education to run a school district.

“What we’re saying is that Barrett has a lot on his hands, with running the city and running for governor. He should let us handle this,” Coggs said.

Unanswered questions

There’s a lot of speculation about the various motivations for this proposal, and almost none of them has to do with the nuts and bolts of educating children. With millions of federal dollars available under the Race to the Top program, money is a huge issue for those pushing for MPS reforms. But according to Coggs, the question of exactly how many millions would be allocated to Milwaukee if it made changes has been open to debate, which only adds to the ambiguity about the benefits of a takeover plan.

There’s also a racial component to consider about the future of the largest school system in the state. Many African-American and Hispanic-American students are failing to keep up with their white counterparts. It’s a big issue for black educators, parents and activists. Some of those people cringe when supporters of the mayoral takeover suggest anyone who resists is just clinging to “the status quo” when it comes to failing minority students at MPS.

“Nobody supports the status quo,” Coggs said. “That’s insulting to me.”

It’s far from clear what mayoral control will entail. I have talked to Barrett about his plan in the past and, frankly, came away confused. At one point, he flatly admitted he didn’t want to run Milwaukee schools but at the same time insisted that mayoral control was the best way for parents and taxpayers to demand accountability.

If he doesn’t want to run the school himself, what is mayoral control about, anyway?

Barrett is usually a pretty straight shooter, which is why his failure to articulate exactly what he wants to do is baffling.

The idea of mayoral control rubs some African-Americans the wrong way. And it has also created a schism among some black state legislators who support Barrett’s plan and others who are aligned with Coggs.

It’s clear any proposal for improvements at MPS is ill-fated unless it involves the one demographic essential to turning around a depressing gap in academic achievement between black and white students in Milwaukee: parents.

They need to be more involved in the education of their children. What will a mayoral takeover do to solve that one?

Nobody knows.

The only thing certain at this point is that something big is coming down the pike in terms of education in Milwaukee. Many of the people involved in the decision will likely be betting on one plan or the other. MPS is almost guaranteed to change. The question is how much?

”It’s like your mother said: ‘Don’t buy a pig in a poke,’ ” said Coggs.

I would settle for someone just explaining what Day One of a takeover of MPS would look like for parents, teachers and students. So far, it’s the one thing nobody seems able to provide.

Contact Eugene Kane at (414) 223-5521 or ekane@journalsentinel.com.

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