Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools

Posted on Categories Education & Law, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public3 Comments on Tony Evers: Trying to Throw High Heat at Voucher Schools

Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, has been making waves by going on the offensive against proposals to expand the use of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. In addition to what has been said in news stories such as this one in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I’d offer three thoughts that struck me as I read the lengthy memo Evers offered to members of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance this week.

One: Legally and politically, this is almost surely idle thinking, but what if the private schools that are in Milwaukee’s voucher program had to face the same kind of consequences for getting weak results that charter schools and, of late, conventional public schools face?

Charter schools, which are independently operated, publicly funded schools, are generally given five-year contracts by a government body. (In Milwaukee, charter contracts are granted by the School Board, city government, or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.) It is not unusual for a charter school to be closed if it is not getting good results at the end of five years, or sometimes sooner.

In the conventional Milwaukee Public Schools system, school closings are becoming common. Tightening finances and declining enrollments are key reasons, but getting bad results is also a factor. And a list of schools, including several major high schools, are under orders, based on federal policies, to take steps such as overhauling their programs and staffs and getting new principals because of low student success.

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A New and Important Wave of MPS Principals

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Milwaukee Schools Superintendent Gregory Thornton has released the first wave of his selections for new principals for Milwaukee Public Schools. As I described in a Journal Sentinel column a few weeks ago, Thornton is facing an unusual number of principal vacancies, in large part because of retirements triggered by the changes Republican Gov. Scott Walker is making to educational spending and public employment benefits.

One high-profile position on the new list: Mike Roemer was chosen to be principal of Ronald Reagan High School. The south side school, with its full international baccalaureate program, has been one of the brightest success stories in MPS in the last decade. Its high-profile founding principal, Julia D’Amato, retired several months ago. Roemer was the assistant principal under D’Amato and has been acting principal since she left. The school community lobbied hard for him to get the job.

Overall, the list of new principals includes four existing principals who are getting new or amended assignments and 17 people being promoted or hired to principal positions. The reassigned principals are appointed at Thornton’s discretion, but the promotions and new hires have to be approved by the School Board. A board committee will take up the recommendations at a meeting Tuesday.    

The list can be viewed by going to this Web page and clicking on “5-24-11 AFP Blue Book Advance Copy” on the right side of the page. Then click on Item 3 on the left hand side of the document that comes up.

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Five Leaders: A Serving of Big Problems, Flavored with Optimism

Posted on Categories Milwaukee, Public, Speakers at Marquette2 Comments on Five Leaders: A Serving of Big Problems, Flavored with Optimism

Being a major leader means never having to say you’re pessimistic. President Jimmy Carter paid a big political price in the late 1970s when he said he thought there was a malaise affecting America. President Ronald Reagan made his optimistic outlook on the future – it’s morning in America – a key to both his political success and his legacy.

So say whatever you want about the specifics of what is going on, but look to the future with hope. It may well be a good approach to personal life. It’s just about a mandatory approach to political life.

That seems like a good perspective on one of the interesting exchanges at  “What Now, Milwaukee? A Forum on the Future of Wisconsin’s Largest City,” a discussion Wednesday at Eckstein Hall that brought together five power players in the city’s life. Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, moderated the 90-minute session before a capacity audience of over 200. The session was co-sponsored by the Law School and the Milwaukee Press Club.

The conversation quickly focused on the need to change the overall low rate of educational success in Milwaukee. There was discussion of budget cuts, rising class sizes, the chronic fighting between advocates for different streams of schools, the inability of the community to come together, and the need to give parents information on every school. Not much light was shed on how to turn the trends in  more positive directions.

But when Gousha asked if educational quality will be better in Milwaukee five years from now, Tim Sheehy, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, answered, “Dramatically.” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said yes. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett agreed. Milwaukee School Superintendent Gregory Thornton said, “Without question.” And Julia Taylor, president  of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, concurred.

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Graduation: A Time for New Beginnings

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We have a number of graduations to celebrate in our family this month, and there is a lot of excitement about the future. The buzz surrounding the start of a new and exciting chapter in the graduate’s life causes me to ask: Why don’t we join them and embrace the new and exciting things that could occur in our lives? I’m not talking about the concrete changes that we will see our graduates make — going off to a new school or starting a new job. I’m talking about creating our own changes to pave the way for a better professional future.

It’s not a bad idea to reflect upon our work as lawyers with an eye toward positive change. That change may be in the way we relate to our co-workers. That change may be in a new commitment to volunteer in the legal community. That change may be a commitment to incorporate a greater level of organization into our practice. That change may be a new routine to stay informed about recent developments in the law. That change may be taking time to become a better listener. That change may be setting aside time to appreciate how rewarding and stimulating our work is. It doesn’t really matter what the change is. The important thing is that we take this opportunity to reassess how we, like new graduates, can take affirmative action that will provide us with a new and fulfilling future.

I recently read a great quote from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did.”  This is the type of statement hundreds of graduates will hear over the next few weeks. It’s time for all of us, new graduates and seasoned practitioners, to embrace this time of new beginnings.

Will Three- and Four-Year-Olds Keep Free Busing to Kindergarten?

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Carrying broad and deep cuts, including almost 1,000 fewer employees, the budget proposed for Milwaukee Public Schools for next year has left at least one member of the School Board, Annie Woodward, suggesting that the board should just refuse to pass the budget. It may seem tempting to other members, but the board is nonetheless on track to approve a budget soon.

Amid all the cuts, one proposal that has attracted particularly strong opposition in public hearings: Eliminating free busing for three- and four-year-old kindergartners. Representatives of Montessori schools and the Starms Early Childhood Center have passionately argued for the importance of starting children in their programs at early ages. Busing is critical to getting the young children to school, they argue. School administrators estimate that there will be more than 2,700 three- and –four-year-olds bused next year, based on current practices.  

Board members are clearly sympathetic to keeping the busing. Two amendments to restore it will be considered at a meeting tonight. There’s one major problem: Neither of the proposals specifies where to come up with the almost $2 million to cover the tab for the young kids. The budget already calls for spending the most MPS can spend legally.

Official information on a proposed budget amendment from board members Terry Falk and Peter Blewett simply says, “$1,942,569 needs to be identified to fund this amendment.” An amendment proposed  by board member Larry Miller favors charging families for the busing, unless the children qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The proposal does not estimate how that might work and, as MPS budgeters said in their comments, “Further investigation is needed on legality of charging for transportation.”  

Overall, MPS has been trying for years to cut the amount it spends on busing. The figure hung around $60 million for quite a while, but has been dropping. For 2009-10, it was $56.8 million. The budget for this school year is $55.1 million. Including eliminating the three- and four-year-olds from busing, the proposed amount for next year is $51.3 million. That’s a little under 5% of the total MPS budget.

National Momentum for School Vouchers

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A couple years ago, I would have said that the growth prospects for school voucher plans were not  good. Proposals to allow students to attend private and religious schools using public money had died in several states, court rulings had not been favorable in places such as Florida where there were strongly worded constitutional bans (“Blaine amendments”) on giving public money to religious schools, research on student achievement in Milwaukee, the nation’s main show case of voucher use, had shown nothing impressive, and  Congress had pulled the plug on a voucher program in Washington, D.C.

The landscape is much different now, thanks primarily to the 2010 elections and the wave of Republican victories.

There’s legislative action on multiple fronts in Wisconsin. Bills to lift the enrollment cap on Milwaukee’s voucher program and to allow suburban schools to accept city of Milwaukee voucher students are moving ahead. A proposal to phase out the family income limits for voucher recipients has brought  controversy and seems likely to morph into raising, but not eliminating, the income standard. And this week, Gov. Scott Walker said he supports expanding the program to include Racine, Beloit, and Green Bay.

It is useful to put the local developments in national context. Here are three examples of what’s going on:

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Tierney to Deliver Memorial Address

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Milwaukee Bar AssociationI hope that many folks reading this post will elect to attend the Milwaukee Bar Association’s annual Memorial Service: it will be held this Friday, May 6, at 10:45 a.m., in the Ceremonial Courtroom (Room 500) of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. It is an event that a number of us have come rarely to miss—largely because we enjoy it, as I explained in a 2009 blog post noting the remembrance by Tom Cannon of his father, Judge Robert C. Cannon, L’41, and in a post last year anticipating Mike Brennan’s remembrance of his own father, James P. Brennan, L’60. The Memorial Service is an opportunity to remember attorneys who died with the past year, after serving the profession and thus the larger society: some names and careers will be familiar to a particular attendee, whereas others will be unknown to him or her—but in this context the latter are not much less meaningful. I see that this year’s Memorial Address will be delivered by Joseph E. Tierney, III, L’66. That is certainly a longstanding name in this region’s legal profession, as discussed previously in posts on this blog, including Gordon Hylton’s description of the legal education of the first Joseph E. Tierney, L’11 (that’s 1911), and my own account of Joe III’s remarks, at a law school event, concerning his late mother and father, Bernice Young Tierney and Joseph E. Tierney, Jr., L’41. I much look forward to Mr. Tierney’s remarks (no doubt remembering among others his late partner, Paul Meissner, who died within the past year) and to the rest of the special session of court, which is the form that the Memorial Service takes.

Investiture of Hon. James A. Wynn, Jr.

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Hon. James A. Wynn, Jr.

It was my great pleasure to attend the investiture of Jim Wynn (L’79) as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The ceremony at the federal courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, drew an enormous crowd, well into the hundreds, requiring that the large majority of those in attendance view the event in various courtrooms in the building through a video feed.

It was no great surprise that Judge Wynn was nominated and confirmed as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals. He had distinguished himself as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as a law student at Marquette (during my days as assistant dean), as an officer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, as a lawyer in private practice, as a leader of the American Bar Association and the Uniform Law Commission, and as an appellate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and North Carolina Supreme Court. Not a bad record for a fellow who grew up in a small farming community in the Coastal Plains region of North Carolina.

Judge Wynn was characteristically gracious to those of us from Marquette who were present. Dean Joseph Kearney was included among the speakers, and not only were his warm congratulations and greetings from Marquette well received, but his punch lines got especially good laughs. (Example:  “But I am presumptuous enough to bring greetings from the past. For I have brought Judge Wynn’s student file with me—I would say that I do this by the power vested in me as dean, but I may be about to violate the FERPA law concerning educational privacy.”)

Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Sykes (L’84) was seated at the front of the courtroom, just in front of the presiding Fourth Circuit bench, every one of whose members was present for Judge Wynn’s investiture—the first time in anyone’s memory that there was a full turnout of the court for such an event. Judge Wynn’s classmates Joseph Yana, John Rothstein, and Dan Dennehy also had prime seats in the ceremonial courtroom, as did I, rubbing shoulders with the Wynn family and with leaders of the North Carolina bench and bar. Marquette trustee Chuck Svoboda, himself a North Carolinian, was also in attendance, as were Reuben Daniels (L’78) and Florence Johnson Raines (L’91).

It is always a pleasure and satisfaction to see a Marquette lawyer achieve impressive professional goals. The pleasure is especially great in the case of Jim Wynn, for the qualities of excellence, faith, leadership, and service etched into the hearth in the Aitken Reading Room are so clearly etched into Jim’s character as well.

Please Stop

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I recently jested that I would spend some blog time on fashion. Then, on Thursday, the fates decided to jest with me a tad. My hospital has a large summer program for local high school students. The students will basically be assigned a mentor and spend the summer learning from the mentor and going to job-related training sessions. Very internship-y.

Anywho, I got wrangled into providing the “Dress For Success” session. Stop laughing, Jake. It’s in July so I have a while to figure out what I am going to say. However, one thing keeps coming to mind. One “rule” to provide to a future job seeking male. And a way to stymie a growing pet peeve.

Ties = Accent pieces. Dudes, they are not, NOT meant to blend into your shirt like some silken chameleon. ACCENT.  Continue reading “Please Stop”

Restorative Justice Conference: Keeping the Victims Foremost

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The eight-year-old who wasn’t there: That was one of the most important people involved in last week’s impressive two-day conference at Eckstein Hall on dealing with clergy sex abuse scandals.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, brought the eight-year-old into the conference.

Of course, no children were literally present. But Archbishop Martin, who has attracted substantial international attention for his strong stands in the aftermath of large-scale scandals in Dublin, recounted how he had a bit of time before a program at a school he was visiting. The principal asked if there was anything he wanted to see. He said he wanted to visit a class of eight-year-olds.

The reason, he said, was that he wanted to look at their faces and underscore in his own mind their images. When people deal with issues related to the scandals, they tend to see the victims as the adults they are when what happened to them comes to light, the archbishop said. He said, “It is important to see the face of eight-year-old.”

When dealing with the issue of sex abuse, it is the images of the victims, both as children and adults, that should come to mind first, not the images of clergy members or the situation of the church overall, Martin said.

That was one of the key messages of the conference, “Harm, Hope, and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Scandal.” The sessions, the Law School’s annual Restorative Justice Initiative conference for this year, brought together experts from around the world and attracted wide attention, particularly in the Catholic press.

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Another Law Gone Wrong

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I’m not sure if this meets the precise definition of a “law gone wrong,” but in my home state of Virginia it is illegal “to hunt or kill any wild bird or wild animal, including any nuisance species, with a gun, firearm or other weapon on Sunday, which is hereby declared a rest day for all species of wild bird and wild animal life.”

Although I was born into a family of church-going hunters, I was always more sympathetic to the church part than to the hunting part.  Consequently, I have no problem whatsoever with Sunday, or any other day for that matter, being declared a day of rest for wild animals (or at least a day on which they cannot be killed).

What I find peculiar (and wrong) is the statute’s one exception:  day of rest notwithstanding, raccoons can be hunted and killed in Virginia on Sundays, so long as the hunting is done between midnight and 2:00 a.m.  (I am not making this up.  If you doubt this, check out Va. Code § 29.1-521(A)(1).)

Because of their semi-domesticated qualities, especially when young, raccoons have always been my favorite wild animals.  But even without this affection, I would like to think that I would find it unfair, and  maybe even unconstitutional in some sublime sense, that one species of woodland animal would be deprived of 1/12 of its statutory day of rest.

Can such a classification purport to have a rational basis?  After Romer v. Evans and United States v. Virginia, I think not.