|Over the past few weeks we have all read the media accounts of the debate over the new proposal by Governor Doyle to hand over control of the Milwaukee Public School system to Mayor Tom Barrett. Milwaukee would certainly not be the first city to entertain such a notion. Cities like Washington DC, New York, and Boston are currently under mayoral control. The model of "mayor as school district CEO" is one that has great support from Arne Duncan, current Education Secretary and of Tony Evers, Wisconsin's state superintendent. In some ways it's hard not to agree with the model when you consider the no-nonsense approach taken by Michelle Rhee in Washington DC, appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007 after his takeover of the district. She fired 36 principles and closed down over twenty low-attended schools in the name of efficiency and higher standards. In her two years at the helm, graduation and truancy rates are starting to improve.
That kind of tough reform is definitely what is needed at MPS, especially after we learned this month that the racial gaps in reading and math achievement are wider than anywhere else - worse than in Mississippi or Louisiana. However, it's also not hard to understand why many people are very skeptical of the plan for mayoral takeover. They feel it takes away their right to vote for those they want to change the system. With one mayor in charge, it's easy to see how people could be leery of giving up their vote and allowing one person to make all the decisions.
Mayoral takeover is certainly not the only reform that could be instituted to fix the Milwaukee Public School system. In 1998, Governor Tommy Thompson proposed a state takeover of the system if MPS couldn't show improvement in exceedingly low test scores. This year, Sen. Ted Kanavas and Rep. Leah Vukmir proposed dissolving the district into 8 smaller, more manageable school districts, rather than continuing to have one superintendent control the operations of 207 schools and 87,000 students.
There is speculation that a reform package will come before the Legislature in September and one thing must be clear: however it's achieved, MPS needs to be reformed now. Three years ago when the Council of the Great City Schools wrote a report on MPS, they noted that a "sense of urgency is not apparent throughout the organization. The board, administration and staff appear fairly complacent." That complacency must end so that the children of Milwaukee attending public school can finally get the education they deserve.
I know it can be done given that Milwaukeeans know a thing or two about education reform based on the successes of the nationally-acclaimed Milwaukee Parental Choice program. Now we just have to convince the anti-reform groups like the teachers' union that unless the badly broken public system undergoes radical reform and brings choice and better education to Milwaukee's families and children, our largest city is doomed to fail.