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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008

School Plot Thickens

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The plot against Milwaukee Public Schools thickens. Adding to the intrigue, this time double agents are involved.

Just a few weeks ago, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) began holding secret meetings with community power brokers to discuss an outside takeover of city schools.

Then, without any advance public notice or a single hearing on the issue, a two-thirds majority of the Milwaukee School Board dropped the Big One: directing the administration to explore dissolving the school district.

It was difficult not to notice that most of the school board members who made up the majority in the 6-to-3 vote to look into dissolution were elected with the political support of the MMAC. What business leaders and their agents on the board have in common is an eagerness to shut out the parents and children the schools are supposed to be serving, as well as teachers who are on the front lines of delivering those educational services.

There are plenty of problems in MPS, and in all public schools, that deserve the attention of every one of our top community leaders. But any educational reform cooked up in secret without broad input from the community, especially parents, students and teachers, is created in ignorance and doomed to failure.

Any association of business leaders has another glaring conflict in attempting to hand down from upon high solutions to problems in public education without bothering to consult the public. The biggest problem affecting educational services in poor urban school districts is dwindling financial resources. Since the first legislative priority of any association of commerce is to fight taxation, they begin any consideration of educational reform by ruling out the solution.

One of the few good things to come out of the MMAC’s reckless, behind-the-scenes maneuvering to blow up the Milwaukee School District—with the complicity of some members of the Milwaukee School Board—is that political leaders are being forced to look at the needs of urban students.

So far, those politicians have reacted in the usual political way—calling for studies. But, at some point, they may actually be forced to act upon those studies to correct the obvious inequities affecting impoverished urban districts.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was the first to boldly call for study. For his own audit of school spending, he has been soliciting private philanthropic funds to pay to bring in authentic educational experts. Then, last week Gov. Jim Doyle courageously called for “a complete evaluation” of MPS. Wow. A mayoral study followed by a gubernatorial evaluation. Talk about a one-two punch to solve the problems of our schools.

Absurd Patterns

Still, proliferating studies and evaluations cannot help but notice a few absurd patterns—such as the fact that the state funding formula now punishes school districts for reducing spending.

Last fall, Milwaukee School Superintendent William Andrekopoulos stirred up a tax protest when he proposed a 16.4% property tax increase to make up for cuts in state funding to MPS. As a result, the school board reduced that tax increase to less than 10%. Well, guess what? Because MPS cut spending so drastically last year, it will get even less state aid this year. As a result, Andrekopoulos told the board last week, even if MPS spent exactly the same amount this year as last year, the tax levy for the district would go up 10%.

The state’s school funding formula has been seriously out of whack for decades. It’s obvious why politicians haven’t done anything to correct the inequities: Those who are most disadvantaged are poor urban districts and poor rural districts. Politically, those getting more than their fair share under the present formula are not moved by the plight of poor blacks or poor whites.

Without reforming the funding formula that fails to provide more financial resources for students with the greatest educational needs, reform of the structure of MPS or any other school district is beside the point.

Barrett denies he or any of his staff has been involved in the secret MMAC meetings on taking over MPS. But those who have been involved in the meetings say the bible that is being used to plan what would come next is a book titled The Education Mayor.

The book examines what has happened in cities where mayors have taken over the schools. Most of those cities, such as Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago, bear little resemblance to Milwaukee.

Success has been mixed at best. Because mayors worry about elections, they tend to be more responsive to middle-class concerns about education. However, poor people and community groups appear to have even less of a voice. It sounds like an educational system that would appeal to insulated business leaders who have never bothered to talk to any poor people or community groups.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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