by Lynda Jones
At the urging of Milwaukee legislators, most notably State Representative Annette Polly Williams who has been an advocate for Milwaukee Public Schools for a long time, senators came to Milwaukee and held a daylong state Senate hearing this week regarding the governance of MPS.
After months of debates, demonstrations, divided political positions and public outcries the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on the senate bills that are addressing changes in governance for MPS.
A capacity crowd packed the MPS Central Offices Auditorium this past Tuesday, and more than 90 public speakers were scheduled to speak to allow their positions to be presented to the legislative committee as well. The hearings began at 10:00 am and went into the evening ending at around 9:00 pm, usual business for Madison, but a new experience for Milwaukeeans. This gave a unique opportunity for citizens to see the legislation process at work.
The morning hearings began with testimony on the bill that has been most publicly dubbed the ‘mayoral takeover’ bill. This bill is by Senators Taylor, Plale and Carpenter; co-sponsored by Representatvies Colon, Fields, Richards, Staskunas, Hinta and Danou.
Senator Lena Taylor opened with the introduction of the bill, expressing her passionate position on the matter. She reminded the committee on the urgency of making changes that were needed to improve the school district, and reinforced her position that the legislative head of the city, namely the mayor should be the accountable figure to put in place for governance with MPS. Taylor along with Representative Colon, Mayor Barrett and Department of Administration Secretary Michael Morgan agreed that a bold drastic change must be in place to improve the continued low performance of MPS.
Barrett spoke of his own children being in MPS schools, and his wife being a teacher. His point was that he was pleased with the results that he is getting from his own children’s educational experience, but added that he is privileged to know how to navigate through the system and pull out the best that it has to offer. He says that every Milwaukee parent should have the same privilage.
Secretary Morgan, who also spoke of a positive experience from MPS for his family as well spoke on the urgency to do something drastic. He cited conversations with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who came from a mayoral run school district in Chicago, where he was a long termed superintendent prior to his position with the Obama administration. He also spoke on the president’s visit to Madison, demonstrating his passion and commitment to improving education nationwide.
Barrett also stated that this plan is not about him, but it is about any mayor of Milwaukee that comes after him. The point of this plan is to have one person accountable, and eliminate any finger pointing on who is to blame. Barrett also added that he wanted solutions to address schools in the bottom quartile in the district, possibly allowing them to bring in new principals and teachers.
“When I was growing up in Milwaukee, there were plenty of factory and manufacturing jobs available. Those days are gone, and they are not coming back. What that means is that our education structure must change. And we need to work on ways that prepare our children for the type of jobs that require more education and higher skills that a high school dropout will not stand a chance at getting.”
Next to speak were the proponents for another plan that was developed as an alternative to the mayoral takeover. This plan is sponsored by State Rep. Tamara Grigsby and Sen. Spencer Coggs. In their competing bill, the mayor has some say, and veto power, but ultimately the school board stays in tact and empowered. The Coggs’/ Grigsby plan attempts to offer the mayor a voice in the decision making.
MPS School Board president Michael Bonds favors the Coggs/Grigsby bill. He stated that he tried to meet with the mayor, and that the mayor was completely against any compromise or effort to work together.
Bonds also stated that proponents for the mayoral takeover plan keep stating that their plan is the one that will have the best chance at attracting the federal dollars that are being offered through The Race to the Top competition adminstered by the U.S. Department of Education, a stimulus program aimed at encouraging education reforms. That has an application deadline of Jan. 19, 2010. He says that he also has had conversations with Secretary Arne Duncan, and he directly asked him if a mayoral takeover was an advantage with attracting these funds, and Duncan flatly said ‘No’.
He stated that the ‘other side’ keeps making statements that want you to believe that a mayoral takeover is what the federal government is looking for.
Grigsby gave stats suggesting that a mayoral run school district is not as successful as the other side had stated. She said that Chicago particularly has seen no turn around or success in this change, which has been in place for more than 15 years.
Last to speak on a bill was State School superintendent Tony Evers. He was speaking in favor of Senate Bill 437, relating to the state supeintendent of public instruction to direct a school district to implement a new curriculum or instructional design, make personnel changes or adopt accountability measures, and requiring the exercise of rulemaking authority.
In the end, what everyone can agree on is that MPS cannot go on the way it has in the past. The system is in bad shape, and it is failing our children the way it has been operating. The term that was used throughout the day was ‘status quo’. No legislator on the committee was from Milwaukee, and this made it even more valuable for as many voices as possible to be heard. Contrary to what the Journal Sentinel reported there was indeed a true divide on the plans, but the majority of those present and random applause that erupted even after the senate committee tried over and over again to state that the outburst were not appropriate for this type of hearing, it was overwhelming evident that a mayoral takeover is not what the public wants.
The overwhelming opinion from MPS educators and parents is that a mayoral takeover will strip them of any say, and instead of attracting parental and community involvement that plan cuts them out.
Bonds stated that even if nothing was decided on with any new plan at this point, he would still be able to continue with the work that is now being done with the new board. “We are already past the status quo argument”.
When asked by one of the senators what could be done to help improve MPS even if neither of the bills were approved? Bonds stated that one of the hurdles that MPS faces is that the district has to split monies with another school system, namely the school choice program and charter schools. A practice that no other school district has to do in the state. And the problem that this also creates for the entire system is the lack of accountabilty that the choice and charter school system has to provide.
He also stated that the way the current funding formula works presents many challenges for MPS. When there have been ways found to streamline in spending, MPS gets penalized for not spending the dollars, and funds are cut. This is counter productive, and it doesn’t encourage the district to try to cut wasteful spending.