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Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009

Issue of the Week: MPS Takeover

Plus Hero and Jerk of the Week

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MPS Takeover Takes Shape with the Milwaukee TEACH Act

We’re not going to argue that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is doing a stellar job of educating our kids, just like we won’t argue that Milwaukee as a whole is some sort of urban idyll.

Both the city and the school district are plagued by a tremendous number of families in need, high-crime neighborhoods, too-few jobs and a crumbling infrastructure. Yet the city and school district also have inspired students and families who are determined to overcome obstacles and make this diverse, vibrant city into a greater one.

Which is why the high-profile quest to change the governance of MPS is a simplistic solution that will do nothing to improve student achievement. A mayoral takeover will result in wealthy, conservative, suburban businesspeople buying the mayoral election and essentially gaining indirect control of the school board. Students, families and voters will be left out of every important decision concerning MPS, while the powerful elites in charge will ignore the residents’ real needs and focus on their own self-interests.

The MPS takeover has been championed by Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the conservative business and philanthropic community, the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel and, now, a handful of Democratic legislators from Milwaukee, led by Sen. Lena Taylor. Taylor—along with Sen. Jeff Plale, Sen. Tim Carpenter, Rep. Pedro Colon and Rep. Jason Fields—is drafting the Milwaukee TEACH Act, which would allow the mayor to hire and fire the superintendent, who would be responsible for MPS’s budget, collective bargaining and contracts, and closing schools and facilities.

The power of the elected board—which would still be elected—would be greatly diminished. It could comment on the budget, but would have no authority to change any budget item. It would be the link to the community, but have no power whatsoever. Therefore, Milwaukee residents would have no power whatsoever.

We think that silencing the voices of MPS families and Milwaukee voters is precisely the wrong way to turn around a struggling school district, which, as everyone agrees, needs “all hands on deck.” If MPS students and their families are going to be engaged in education, then they need to feel they are valued citizens with some control over their destiny. That comes from safe, clean schools and neighborhoods, job opportunities before and after graduation, and a sense of pride in their city. The mayor, state legislators and governor could help with the city’s safety and jobs issues, but instead they insist on meddling with MPS’s education policies. Yes, we agree that MPS, like any major institution, needs to empower its managers—in this case, school principals—to make the difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. But the business community needs to understand that schools are not businesses, children are not adult employees, and business leaders are not educators.

We’ve also got to wonder about the legislators who support this takeover: Would they appreciate the governor taking over the state Legislature? Would they want to be part of an elected body that had no power whatsoever, that could comment on the actions of the governor but not actually influence matters concerning this state? Would their constituents fare better if their votes meant nothing? That’s precisely what these legislators are proposing for MPS. Why do these legislators, who trust their constituents to make the right decision when it comes to their legislative elections, think these same voters are too stupid to make the right decision when it comes to school board elections?

Hero of the Week

Mary Anne McNulty

Mary Anne McNulty was a true Milwaukee hero. She died last week, less than a month after being diagnosed with cancer. McNulty possessed an unyielding sense of social justice given to her by the strong Catholic, Irish, working-class culture in which she grew up. McNulty moved to Milwaukee 40 years ago and spent those years as a tireless organizer and advocate on behalf of those less fortunate. After being frustrated with what she felt was City Hall’s lack of concern for working-class neighborhoods and the poor, she decided to run for a seat on the Common Council. After two losses, she won a special election in 1983 and served through 1992. As an organizer and a politician, she embodied the Obama philosophy of being able to strongly disagree with someone on the other side of an issue while still being their friend. She was one of those rare people who could be very active and passionate about an issue, yet not hold any personal animosity toward her opponents. She was extremely forgiving. One of her close friends said, “She had the Obama line and lived it while Obama was still in elementary school.” Milwaukee lost a real hero—hopefully her life will inspire more such heroes.

Jerk of the Week

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker

Like its counterparts throughout the state, the Milwaukee County Board on Monday approved a carefully considered budget that preserves jobs and services, and which would raise the tax levy by about 4%, in line with economic realities and in step with the budgets of other area counties. Unfortunately, the budget now goes to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker, who also moonlights as the Milwaukee County executive. Reading from the same cue cards he uses every year, Walker has threatened to veto any budget item that will raise taxes, however modestly. If this seems familiar, it ought to. As in past years, the county board will override Walker’s delusional vetoes, preserving needed services to the taxpayers, and Walker will get to preen on-air, at the invite of fawning talk-radio hosts—including Charlie Sykes, whose wife is employed by Walker’s campaign chair—and claim that he has “held the line on taxes.” We can only imagine the damage of a line-item veto pen being wielded at the state level by Walker.