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Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009

Both Sides of the MPS Mayoral Takeover

Pros and cons of changing school governance

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While everyone seems to agree that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) faces serious challenges, few education experts believe that a change in governance will solve those problems. Despite that fact, the city is beginning to split on how to turn around the district’s performance while reigning in costs. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Common Council President Willie Hines and state Superintendent Tony Evers are advocating a mayoral takeover of the district, which would allow Barrett to appoint the MPS superintendent and possibly the school board. On the other side is a coalition led by new MPS Board President Michael Bonds, U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, a number of Milwaukee legislators, the NAACP and the teachers’ union. This coalition wants the new board to continue its reforms and to select the next superintendent.

We’ve gathered comments from both sides and presented their best arguments here:

Mayor-Led MPS Says: “Keeping the status quo is the path of least resistance, but it is also the path that is failing our students,” the mayor wrote in last week’s “Barrett Report.” “The stakes are too high and I am determined to do the right thing for our children and community.”

Board-Led MPS Says: MPS board members don’t want to continue the status quo, either. Six of the nine members have been elected since 2007, and six of the nine supported Bonds for president in April, showing that they’re moving beyond the divisive politics of the past. Also, appointed boards can be dysfunctional as well, since mayors feel an obligation to appoint members representing small but vocal advocacy groups.

Mayor-Led MPS Says: A mayoral takeover would help Wisconsin get some of the billions of dollars in federal “Race to the Top” funds because it shows we’re serious about educational reform.

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated clearly that he believes mayoral governance is essential to reform,” Barrett wrote in a recent op-ed. “This is not only true for the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds but likely will continue to be true for future federal education dollars.”

Board-Led MPS Says: Congresswoman Gwen Moore cleared this up last week in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the criteria for Race to the Top funds. Her letter recounts a July 9 conversation she had with Duncan: “Responding to my query regarding requirements for governance of school boards, you unequivocally stated that mayoral control of the school board is not a prerequisite to compete for Race to the Top funds—a position made clearer by the fact that the proposed rule does not mention the type of local school board control required to qualify for dollars.”

Instead, the Race to the Top criteria focus on linking teacher pay to performance and increasing the number of charter schools.

Mayor-Led MPS Says: Having the mayor lead MPS would increase accountability. Gov. Jim Doyle said at a recent press conference, “I do believe that it is best for the people of Milwaukee to know that the mayor is in charge of those schools.”

The performance of the schools impacts the city’s ability to attract and retain employers, so the mayor should have a say in MPS’s future. “The future of the schools and the future of the city are intertwined. It’s so important to make those connections and hold the mayor accountable,” Barrett’s Chief of Staff Patrick Curley told the Shepherd.

Board-Led MPS Says: The editors of the Harvard Educational Review found a flaw in this logic: “Most citizens do not base their votes for mayor solely on the performance of the school system.” Instead, voters consider a host of issues, from property taxes to public safety to pothole repair. School board elections, on the other hand, are based solely on the performance of our schools, so voters have the opportunity to send a clear message with their school board votes.

What’s more, mayoral appointees would be accountable to the mayor, not to parents or Milwaukee taxpayers. State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), a former MPS board member, argued that an appointed board member would be less likely to respond to a parent’s concerns than one who was elected by that parent.

And don’t conservatives and the business community usually bash appointed boards with the power to levy taxes, like Milwaukee Area Technical College’s appointed board? An appointed MPS board would be similarly insulated from voters’ demands on all educational issues, including raising property taxes.

Mayor-Led MPS Says: The governance change would increase democracy, because residents would still vote for mayor, who could select the new superintendent and/or appoint the board. And more voters participate in mayoral elections than school board elections, which have a dismal participation rate of less than 5%.

Board-Led MPS Says: School board members are elected by their neighbors, and these grassroots campaigns don’t require the big bucks that citywide elections do. Candidates win school board elections by knocking on the doors of their constituents, not by working the phones to raise big money for TV ads from wealthy donors who often live outside the city. Furthermore, these locally elected school board members need to be responsive to their constituency, since history has shown that voters are more likely to vote out incumbent MPS board members than a Milwaukee mayor. One way to increase participation in MPS board elections is to move the elections so that at least half of the board runs on the same ballot as the mayor.

What’s more, a change in governance would require a change in state law, which means that rural and suburban legislators would be deciding a local issue that is specific to Milwaukee and should be decided by Milwaukee taxpayers.

Mayor-Led MPS Says: Barrett’s top priorities are closing the racial achievement gap, which is among the worst in the nation, and increasing the graduation rate. Barrett says he wants to prepare kids for the highly competitive 21st-century workforce. He and his allies say they would like to replicate what works in other districts and apply those programs to MPS.

Board-Led MPS Says: Mayor Barrett has yet to present an education plan, so his reforms are purely hypothetical. The newly elected board is making a host of changes now that are starting to bear fruit. The district is implementing a strategic plan, which was developed by education experts along with MPS, the teachers’ union and the African American Education Council. In addition, the state Department of Public Instruction is developing a stronger corrective action plan as dictated by No Child Left Behind. The district has also channeled more resources into math, science and reading programs, which has been successful in lifting test scores.

Mayor-Led MPS Says: MPS faces serious financial problems and each year it attempts to raise property taxes to unreasonable levels. The Barrettinstigated McKinsey audit of the district shows that up to $100 million of “waste” can be cut from MPS’s budget if it reduces employee benefits and moves people onto BadgerCare, increases prepackaged lunches and streamlines its operations.

Board-Led MPS Says: The new MPS board has already implemented a hiring freeze and reduced the use of contractors, which has saved the district $10 million. MPS is looking at a property tax increase of less than 2.75% in the 2010 budget, and, unlike the city and state, is not resorting to furloughs to save money. The board has approved an Office of Accountability, which will keep closer tabs on contracts and expenses.

What’s more, a change in governance wouldn’t change the state funding formula for school districts, so the mayor would be working within the same constraints as the elected board and could also raise property taxes to cover MPS’s expenses.

And, finally, when it comes to a large chunk of the McKinsey audit’s $100 million “savings”: Would it really save money to shift MPS employees from their current health insurance plans to state taxpayer-funded BadgerCare?

Mayor-Led MPS Says: Mayoral control has worked in other cities, such as New York and Chicago. Barrett claims that New York’s Bloomberg-led schools have reduced the racial gap by 12.5% in math and 6.4% in reading. Chicago Public Schools, then led by Education Secretary Duncan, were said to have increased its elementary school test scores from 38% proficiency to 67% while reducing the dropout rate.

Board-Led MPS Says: The evidence isn’t clear-cut. According to the editors of the Harvard Educational Review, who analyzed data on mayoral takeovers throughout the country, “Although mayors have won some important initial victories after assuming control of school districts, the record suggests that the long-term benefits of takeovers are more elusive, especially when it comes to improving student achievement.”

A Public Policy Forum report echoed these findings. “Governance reform may result in improvements in a district’s fiscal condition, but may not have sustainable impacts on student achievement, especially of low-income and minority students,” the Forum concluded.



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