A mayor’s school takeover plot
reports on grassroots opposition to a plan--apparently backed by the Obama administration--for Milwaukee's mayor to take control of the public schools.
SOME 250 people gathered at Milwaukee's City Hall on November 3 to announce their opposition to a bill in the Wisconsin state legislature that would place the city's public schools under mayoral control.
If the bill passes, the mayor of Milwaukee, currently Tom Barrett, would appoint the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and empower him or her with control over the system's purse strings, academic policy and collective bargaining. The publicly elected school board, which now has jurisdiction over these matters, would be reduced to a nearly powerless advisory body.
The rally was organized by the Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover, which represents the key constituents affected by the proposed change and the broadest grouping of social justice groups here since the late 1960s.
Among the participants are the local chapter of the NAACP; the Milwaukee teachers' union (MTEA); Parents United for Milwaukee Public Schools (PUMPS); Milwaukee Inner City Churches Allied for Hope (MICAH); the progressive school reform journal Rethinking Schools; and a host of other influential grassroots organizations. They have been joined by several members of the school board and a local alderman.
The coalition planned the rally to coincide with a visit by President Obama to the state capital in Madison on Wednesday, where he met with Mayor Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to discuss reforms to the state's education system. While Obama has not taken a public position on the mayoral takeover, activists rightly see it as a move to accelerate school "reforms" promoted by his administration and built into the so-called "Race to the Top" funding from the stimulus plan.
Doyle, a Democrat, announced his support for mayoral takeover at a voucher-supported high school, and bills are pending in the legislature to lift caps on the licensing of charter schools and prohibitions on tying teacher pay to student test scores--the two main requirements states must meet to receive Race to the Top money.
EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan says Milwaukee especially needs these reforms since it is one of the few cities where the achievement gap between Black and white students continues to grow.
But speakers at the November 3 rally made a clear case for why these changes don't get at the root of the problem. "Black households in Milwaukee earn $494 for every $1,000 earned by white households," explained parent and PUMPS member Jackie Ivy. "Blacks living in Milwaukee are four times more likely to be unemployed than their white neighbors."
Others pointed out that mayoral control hasn't worked in other cities. "We are familiar with the failed and marginal level achievements of school districts across this country--Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.," explained Mary Glass, chair of the Milwaukee Professionals Association. "We are presently looking at Boston, and we have concerns. It is our position that we do not need to add another failed idea on top of decades of systemic and infrastructural problems rooted in segregation, bad decision-making, flavor-of-the-day decision-making, and concentrated poverty."
Protesters also responded to claims in the local press that the mayor would be more accountable to the public than an elected school board, because there is higher voter turnout for mayoral elections than for school board elections. "His proposal concentrates power in one person, the mayor, when it's the parents and teachers who need more power," said Melissa Tempel, an MPS parent and teacher in the Educators Network for Social Justice. "His proposal echoes the interest of the business community."
Rozalia Harris, vice president of the Milwaukee teachers' union, called instead for "true collaboration among all stakeholders" in the everyday functioning of schools, and circulated a 12-page document with proposals for how this could be achieved.
Many Milwaukeeans already feel disenfranchised by the rushed and underhanded manner in which the change in the schools structure has been pushed. Members of the current school board didn't know Mayor Barrett was considering a takeover until this August, when School Board President Michael Bonds discovered Barrett was holding private planning meetings on the takeover bill with Governor Doyle and representatives from Arne Duncan's office.
At the time, Bonds was working with Barrett on an MPS Innovation and Improvement Advisory Committee, in which mayoral control was not even on the table. Furthermore, final details of the takeover bill weren't announced until October 26, a mere week and a half before the end of the state's legislative session on November 5.
These attempts to stifle debate on the issue have thankfully backfired. Opposition to mayoral control is widespread in Milwaukee, and the takeover bill does not yet have the votes to win.
Activists remain vigilant, however, as Doyle has stated he will call a special session of the legislature to continue debate. The Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover is calling on residents throughout the state to contact their legislators and plan to mobilize for hearings on the issue in Madison once the special session dates are announced.
All signs point to the likelihood that the Obama administration is using Milwaukee as a test case for mayoral takeovers nationally. If the takeover measure passes the legislature, it will likely be used as a model for implementation of "Race to the Top" reforms in other mid-size cities. If it is defeated, it will send an inspiring message to residents of those cities that such top-down maneuvers can be stopped.