Does the Mayor REALLY Want Control of MPS?

by Bill Henk
Wishes_docpop_flickrOn the surface, this question seems downright nutty — odd at best and stupid at worst.

“Well, of course Mayor Barrett wants control of the Milwaukee Public Schools, Dr. Ivory Tower.  Where have you been?”

That response makes perfect sense coming from almost anyone who knows the unfolding of this story.  The Mayor’s intent to take over MPS is no secret.  The “news” has been pretty much splattered all over our local Milwaukee media.

And no wonder.  The theme of mayoral control has anchored high profile public announcements and abundant press releases by key players, especially in recent months.  Position statements, including joint ones, have been put in play by the governor, the mayor himself, the state superintendent, the  school board and teacher association presidents, state senators, aldermen, and almost every public official with a stake in the fight.  It might be easier to cite who hasn’t voiced an opinion.

Even an unnamed local education dean acknowledged the fracas by saying,

Battle lines drawn.  Wagons circling. Troops rallying.  Hatches battened down.  Dukes up.  Bring it on. It’s go time, baby…we have an official war waging for control of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Both sides seem ready to rumble.  But here’s the thing  –  I’m not convinced that deep down Mayor Barrett covets winning control of the schools. Although this natural leader of the takeover bid appears to be spearheading the effort, I wonder whether his “heart” is truly in it.  To be honest, I couldn’t say that I blame him.

A Little History First

Many Milwaukee residents will recall that the Mayor has flirted with the idea of assuming control of MPS before.  His purpose then may have been to bolster a re-election bid with some appealing campaign rhetoric.  More likely, his motivation was earnest, although clearly ambitious and perhaps a touch naive when he first proposed it.

In any case, he backed off the idea some time later.  Why?  My guess is that one or more trusted advisors shared this little piece of wisdom with him:  Be careful what you ask for.

Whether that was the case or not, Mayor Barrett remained content to leave the takeover prospect sitting harmlessly on the shelf until early last spring.  He didn’t bring the topic up, and when others did, he managed to skirt it.

But then things changed.  And in all honesty, I’m not entirely sure why.  No defining moment surfaced as far as I could tell.

The Fire is Refueledemptyclass_judybaxter_flickr

Somehow the chronic problems of the school district suddenly became intolerable. Patience just ran dry.  Longstanding but unfulfilled promises of improvement no longer managed to cut it.  No confidence existed that the future would be any different.  Everything seemed pointed to a change. Enough was enough.

Yet even in the midst of a critical mass of dissatisfaction, a turned tide, and one straw too many, the urgency appeared to reverberate more so with others than it did with the mayor. Oh, it’s true that he became a public “accomplice” to Governor Doyle and State Superintendent Tony Evers, but he may not have had much choice.

Escalating pressure from the Governor’s Office and the Department of Public Instruction, the constant urgings of Milwaukee business leaders to take action, and the seeming fear of losing out on Race to the Top monies made the situation too much for the Mayor to look past any longer.  The result?  Game on.

What Can Be Expected of Mayoral Control?

The renewed interest in systemic change sparked the call for something, almost anything, to be done–including a different governance model.  A mayoral takeover not only fit the bill, but also represented pretty much the only menu choice.

For the record,  mayoral control of urban school districts has not uniformly met with success.  Results qualify as mixed. Even the cities often touted as benefiting from this governance model like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D. C., have not necessarily yielded achievement data that make discerning educational researchers do cartwheels.  To his credit, the Mayor has visited each one.  To me, it’s either a matter of him doing his homework or needing more convincing himself.

None of this is to say that the supporters in Milwaukee of mayoral control and an appointed school board are misguided.  Rather, the takeover simply offers no guarantees.  It could be a monumental success or a dismal failure. Too many factors figure into the equation for predicting the model’s eventual impact.  Only time would tell.

It seems to me, though, that one determining factor might be a mayor who truly welcomes and relishes the vast new set of responsibilities.   Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute put it this way, “…it’s got to be something the mayor wants.”  And, as I see it, although Mayor Barrett appears willing to assume the reins, he needs taking over MPS like a cannon ball to the cranium.

Because You Just Might Get It

My guess is that’s why the Mayor declined the call to debate the issue publicly several weeks ago, and has provided relatively little in the way of specifics until the last few weeks.  Only now are the joint press releases from the offices of the Governor and the Mayor as well as “The Barrett Report” packing any real substance.  At least now we see goals.  But the plan at this point amounts to letting the new superintendent figure it out.

Given the gravity and sensitivity of a mayoral takeover, I would have expected more.  He’s had plenty of time to craft an approach and has even been urged by his own allies to produce one.

Key critics of the takeover bid have noted dismissively that the absence of a comprehensive plan leaves them nothing to which they can respond.  Some of them also contest the notion that Race To the Top funds depend upon the takeover (and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has since confirmed that they are correct in a recent letter to Congresswoman Gwen Moore).  In any case, many of these same opponents have also challenged the strength of his commitment.

Realistically, a bold brush stroke like a mayoral takeover would seem to demand a solid framework on the front end.  Maybe it will be forthcoming soon.  Let’s just say that a more fully conceptualized plan than what we’ve seen to date must be on the table before the next Wisconsin legislative session. Otherwise, the proposal, which will face stiff opposition in any event, will probably not survive.

What Taking on Control Really Means

Look, I can’t really gauge whether the Mayor has done a good job leading the city.  I’m not really in a strong position to know.  What is clear to me, though, is that  the current demands on his office are huge and vital in their own right.  There are many other issues besides education like health care, the economy, and public safety that need to be addressed, and he knows it all too well.  Besides, since I’m not a city resident, I have little or no right to an opinion.

But I do know education.  I also know administration.  And, I’m normally a very astute judge of character.

The meetings I’ve shared with the Mayor tell me that Tom Barrett is a good human being and professional.  I find him to be an attentive listener, very thoughtful in his remarks, and always respectful.

If that weren’t enough to commend him, consider the character of a a guy who’d take a brutal beating in coming to the aid of a woman in distress for Pete’s sake. So when I suggest that his heart hasn’t always seemed to be in the takeover, I am not questioning his heart.

Surely a veteran leader like the Mayor, after considerable time to reflect, now knows what signing on for accountability of MPS really means.  His willingness to assume this massive obligation could be explained in many ways, but I hope and suspect that it’s his care for the city and our Milwaukee school children as much as any pressure he’s receiving.    He knows something has to be done and that many people are looking to him to do it.  Frankly, mayoral control is all he’s got.

Let’s face it  – taking on a new administrative oversight, particularly one on the order of a troubled major urban school system, would be daunting for anyone.  It’s a terrifying prospect, a surefire recipe for mental, emotional, and physical anguish in my book.  Presumably his inspiration centers on the ultimate health of the city, and it may indeed be necessary for the Mayor to step up in this case.

But actually winning the fight for MPS  figures to take an enormous personal toll on him. Little surprise then that he’d be apprehensive and tentative.  I’d worry about anyone who wouldn’t be.

So Now What?

In monitoring the situation, I’ve often speculated about whether the Mayor believes that the proposed takeover represents the best course of action.  His recent words and actions indicate that he does.  As late as mid-September, the Mayor talked about being “more convinced” about the mayoral takeover, again suggesting that he’s still trying to persuade himself.  Then again, it also makes me think that he’s simply like the rest of us and just can’t come up with anything better

Whether he steps up passionately, willingly, reluctantly, or grudgingly, his doing so signals a belief that the future of the city depends in very large measure on fixing our challenged urban school district.  If he’s prepared to do the work, then any personal qualms he might have about taking on the new role may not matter.

Of course, there is also that nagging question of whether the Mayor will  run for Governor, and everything that might mean for our persistently struggling public school system.

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