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Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Predictions About the Special Session for MPS

What’s the rush?

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Gov. Jim Doyle has called a special session of the Legislature for Dec. 16 to debate a mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS)—but lawmakers don’t have to obey the governor.

In fact, according to our sources in Madison, legislators won’t take up the measure until well after the new year, if they act on it at all.

Here’s what we’re hearing: The Milwaukee TEACH Act, which would hand over MPS to the Milwaukee mayor and his or her appointed superintendent—a bill authored primarily by Democrats Sen. Lena Taylor and Rep. Pedro Colon, with the support of the governor and Mayor Tom Barrett—isn’t popular with other Democrats. That includes Democrats in the city, who are outraged by what they see as a power grab, as well as outstate Democrats, who aren’t confident that the bill will change MPS for the better.

Republicans, on the other hand, may want to support the bill, since it would stick it to Milwaukee, help to destroy public education and pave the way for a statewide voucher system that pours money into private—mostly church-based—schools. Then again, the GOP may not want to hand a victory to Doyle and Barrett. But a mayor-controlled MPS favors deep-pocketed suburban conservatives, who, as potential mayoral campaign donors suddenly interested in the city, could have more influence over the Milwaukee mayor and the state’s largest school district than they have under the current system.

We also hear that lawmakers are concerned about rushing to pass a bill that changes the governance of a $1.1 billion entity. It’s an enormous piece of public policy. Get it wrong now, and those mistakes will be compounded by the amount of money at stake and the number of kids and families affected.

It took about a year to craft the drunken driving measures to be taken up by the Legislature in an extraordinary session. In contrast, the Milwaukee TEACH Act was introduced less than a month ago.

Our sources tell the Shepherd that the MPS debate won’t happen until the spring so it can be done carefully and thoroughly. That doesn’t mesh with the governor’s application for federal “Race to the Top” money, which is due by Jan. 19, 2010.

In addition, the MPS board is going ahead with its search for a new superintendent, and aims to announce final candidates in early 2010. But the mayor wants to appoint the next MPS superintendent; a delayed takeover bill won’t help him.

What’s more, the Legislature doesn’t have to take up the bill favored by the governor. According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, “the Legislature has considerable latitude to determine to what extent and in what form it responds to the [governor’s] advisory instructions. It is even free to produce legislation at cross-purposes to the governor’s intentions, provided it stays within the subject area restrictions.”

That means the Legislature could take up the RACE for Success Act, authored by Rep. Tamara Grigsby and Sen. Spencer Coggs. That bill would preserve a strong elected MPS board, but allow the mayor more input on the district’s budget and policies. The governor and mayor don’t want this bill to pass, preferring to go for the full takeover with an elected but irrelevant school board.


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