Strange Bedfellows: How the Kooyenga/Darling Turnaround District Plan Depends on Chris Abele
By Collin Roth May 11, 2015 Right Wisconsin
Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Sen Alberta Darling’s proposal to create a ‘turnaround district’ in Milwaukee for failing schools was largely greeted with approval from conservatives applauding an effort to break the failing status quo. But one part of the proposal is raising some eyebrows. Under the proposal, the Milwaukee County Executive, Chris Abele, will appoint the commissioner for this turnaround district, a position with broad powers and someone whose management and leadership could very well determine the success of the reform.
So why are conservative Republicans handing the power of success or failure over to the Democratic Milwaukee County Executive?
Rep. Dale Kooyenga answered this very question in an interview with Charlie Sykes Monday morning on 620 WTMJ.
I think Chris is liberal on certain issues. I think as far as fiscal management, I think he’s done a good job. And I think one of the reasons he’s done good in fiscal management is that he’s not afraid to take on the unions. He’s not afraid of the unions. So when you’re looking at this position to appoint (a Turnaround District Commissioner), you need someone who is not afraid of the unions. I think really at the County Exec level, we have someone who has local buy-in, who is elected by the people here, and I think he’ll do a really good job of providing these wrap-around services to save the county money and save the state money and be really smart about delivering what we need to the schools.
So why Chris Abele? Kooyenga’s point about the county “wrap around services” aside, the answer really is because there is no one else.
Mayor Tom Barrett and the Department of Public Instruction were not options due to their reluctance or outright opposition to the proposal. It sounds like the authority could still end up with Gov. Walker if he so desired, but that seems unlikely due to the governor’s limited engagement in state affairs as of late.
With those options eliminated, Chris Abele becomes one of very few options.
Here are the potential positives of Chris Abele’s involvement as I see it.
First, Chris Abele is not beholden to the teachers union, as Kooyenga mentioned. This, in and of itself, is profoundly important to the success of the reform. If you think otherwise, just check out MTEA president Bob Peterson’s statement on the proposal.
Second, Chris Abele’s commitment to the reform could signal greater involvement from the business and development community that are his base constituencies. This proposal is about improving education in Milwaukee with the hope that if education is improved Milwaukee’s economy can improve. For success, this reform will require significant buy-in from Abele and his friends.
Third, Chris Abele does have a history supporting organizations that seek an all-of-the-above approach to improving urban education in public, charter, and private schools. Abele’s charitable foundation, the Argosy Foundation, supports Schools That Can Milwaukee, a non-profit organization with a mission to get 20,000 students in high-performing urban schools by 2020. Schools That Can Milwaukee currently partners with schools like St. Marcus, Carmen Tech, and Milwaukee College Prep.
Finally, if Chris Abele has any higher ambitions (which he does), improving failing schools in Milwaukee would be a major boost to his brand as a socially liberal, pro-business Democrat who can get things done.
So what are the negatives?
A major negative is Chris Abele himself. He has a history of making big promises and hanging people out to dry. And conservatives rightly distrust him for his decision to hire Graeme Zielinski after he was fired; and for the way he would not own up to the sleazy attacks made on Sheriff Clarke that he funded through the Greater Wisconsin Committee last year. 2014 was not a good year for Abele’s reputation, integrity, or character.
Another major negative is Chris Abele’s higher ambitions. Just as the ambitions could work to the advantage of the reform, they could also work against the success of the reform given Abele’s need to improve his relationships with unions and progressives. Remember, this is not Chris Abele’s idea. He is not beholden to its success. If Abele fails to buy-in or sees the turnaround district as a political liability, he could simply sabotage the success through inaction or making a toothless appointment.
Ultimately, the Kooyenga/Darling proposal is a bold reform. It is not without risk. But bold reforms are required to take on such massive and entrenched problems like those found at the failing schools in Milwaukee. There are admittedly few perfect options in terms of local support. So, for the sake of the students in Milwaukee’s 55 failing public schools, let’s hope this proposal finds a champion in Chris Abele. The lives, education, and opportunities of thousands of Milwaukee students may just depend on this partnership between Madison Republicans and the Democratic Milwaukee County Executive.