MPS Politics: Visits to Two Different Decks

Two sessions bearing on the future of Milwaukee Public Schools took place simultaneously Tuesday night, and each drew about 75 people who care about education in the city.

Beyond that, it’s hard to think of much the two events had in common. At one, pretty much everybody thought that the way MPS is run is a big part of the problem and that it is time to make major changes.  At the other, the emphasis was on forces beyond MPS that affect schools, and everyone agreed the existing governance system should be defended. 

Session 1: Sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform and held at the United Community Center on the south side, it featured Jon Schnur, co-founder and CEO of New Leaders for New Schools, who spoke on the potential for urban school systems to gain significantly from making major changes in how they function. New Leaders runs programs in ten cities, including Milwaukee, to train principals, but Schnur emphasized he was speaking for himself and not the organization. Schnur outlined the underlying philosophy of the Obama Administration on education reform, especially the Race to the Top program, offering states $4.35 billion in aid to improve low-performing schools. Schnur is close personally with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and he described the Administration’s shake-things-up philosophy in very positive terms. Among those present: State Senator Lena Taylor;  Patrick Curley, Mayor Tom Barrett’s chief of staff; philanthropists Sheldon and Marianne Lubar; and leaders of several charter schools and private schools. The sentiment was heavily in favor of proposals to give major control of MPS to Milwaukee’s mayor. 

Session 2: A public hearing before the Milwaukee School Board at the MPS central office. Testimony was unanimously against mayoral take-over, with resounding support for continuing the current system of electing the nine members of the School Board. In this crowd, there were no voices in support of just about anything Schnur or the people at the other event favored. Barrett and Governor Jim Doyle were criticized in strong terms by many speakers for their support of the mayoral control plan and for not doing enough to help MPS. Lawrence Hoffman, who is active in left-of-center causes in Milwaukee, told Board members that “OSF” (outside school factors, such as poverty and joblessness) were at the root of why so many students didn’t succeed in MPS. Wendell Harris, chair of the Milwaukee NAACP education committee, said the organization stood uncompromisingly behind the right of people to vote for School Board members.  Others present: at least half a dozen leaders of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. 

The NAACP’s Harris ended his testimony by saying, “See you in the winner’s circle.” That was another difference between the two events. At the School Board hearing, the underlying feeling clearly was that opponents of mayoral control were going to prevail. This created an energized and almost aggressive content in some of the statements. At the reform event, there was, at best, a sober trepidation in the comments during socializing, with a clear awareness that the prospect for even getting the issue onto the floor of the Legislature in the near future is not looking good.  And if  it is put up for legislative action, the prospect for passage appears iffy, at best. 

The mayoral control issue has generated a lot of debate and activism. When Duncan visited Wisconsin with President Barack Obama several weeks ago, he said in a phone interview with me that Milwaukee needs a united and concerted effort to improve its school outcomes. It’s time for all hands on deck, he said.

But united and concerted were hardly the words for what was going on Tuesday night. And if all hands were involved, the ship of Milwaukee education clearly has  two really different decks.

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