Until Tuesday, Dale Kooyenga and Lauren Baker had never met. That alone is an argument for why their discussion before a capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall was worthwhile.
Kooyenga is a member of the state Assembly, a leader among Republicans pushing for education policies that embrace school choice, and a key figure behind a controversial new law that gives Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele powers to control what happens in some low-success Milwaukee public schools.
Baker is the executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the union that is an influential force in Milwaukee politics and MPS decision making. The union opposes almost all the plans Kooyenga supports.
Never the twain shall agree? That’s likely, given the adamancy of their positions. But never the twain shall meet? That ended at the Law School event, which was titled “The Future of Education in Milwaukee: One Conversation, Two Viewpoints.”
Indeed, the conversation was sharp at times and viewpoints differed on almost every issue that was raised – school financing, school choice programs, and certainly the new effort involving the county executive’s office. It is officially called the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, but Baker called it the MPS take-over plan. She warned of dire consequences for MPS if it goes forward, while Kooyenga said it will help MPS. Baker said the things Kooyenga envisioned all could be done within the existing structure and good changes are already underway. Kooyenga said that, in the lowest performing set of schools, different steps were needed than what the system has offered.
I was the moderator and I have some experience watching the education scene in the city. I thought both Kooyenga and Baker said things that really ought to be considered by their critics. And I thought both said things that I would question. Neither budged on their positions. Neither scored a knockout blow.
But there they were, talking with each other and, off stage, having some quite pleasant conversation. And there they were, agreeing on the urgency of raising the overall success of students in Milwaukee. That strikes me as a hopeful step and maybe the start of more dialogue involving them and others (although that thought is colored by hope, I admit).
The starting point for the session was a proposal from Kooyenga that he and the president of the teachers union have a debate at the Law School. We said that if the two of them would do it, we would host it (although we called it a conversation, not a debate). The union president, Kim Schroeder, who also has never met Kooyenga, readily accepted Kooyenga’s invitation. As it turned out, Schroeder has out sick with pneumonia and Baker stepped in for him.
During the event, Kooyenga expressed his wishes for Schroeder’s recovery and said he would be in touch with the union president to see if they could talk sometime over a beer.
I hope that happens. Can it help? I don’t really know. But it can’t hurt. I know of no evidence that the combative, stick-to-my-own-silo atmosphere around so many education issues involving Milwaukee children has helped or moved any needle in a positive direction. I applaud Kooyenga and Baker for taking part. Maybe it’s an opening of some kind.
The video of the one-hour event itself can be viewed by clicking here.