Cutting to a Broader Truth

By MIKE NICHOLS | June 21, 2010

The street that Mr. T. Quiles lives on with his family on the west side of Milwaukee literally dead-ends into the playground of Luther Burbank School.

There is only one other house between Quiles' home, where Mr. Quiles was cutting his grass the other day, and the Burbank schoolyard. Some teachers heading to the elementary school in the morning have to walk further from their cars in the parking lot across S. 61 St., it appears, than his kids would have to walk from their own front door – those teachers who still have jobs, that is.

Burbank, like most MPS schools, is laying off teachers, lots of them, because the teachers union refuses to compromise a little on a ludicrously expensive and generous health care plan.  If the union would agree to switch to a slightly cheaper (though still excellent) plan, the district would save some $48 million – and about 480 teachers’ jobs. The union won’t, though, of course. The union wants to keep the freebie.  This is one of those rare moments of absolute clarity that everyone ought to be able to see.

One that some already have.

Mr. T. Quiles shuts down his lawn mower when I ask him what he thinks.

“I want the best for my kids,” he said. “We all do.”

The union, of course, makes the same claim, and I know there are some teachers, young ones most likely, who are sincere about that and haven’t been with the Milwaukee Public Sinecures for long.  The broader picture, though, standing on Mr. Quiles’ sidewalk, the smell of freshly mown grass in the air, is now undeniable.

Burbank, a school with about 600 students not far from the West Allis border,  is not one of MPS’s worst schools. Test scores show it’s pretty average and sometimes above that for MPS – although that is a very big qualifier, “for MPS.”
The only people in the Burbank hallways when I stopped by were teachers shutting things down and wishing an older colleague a nice retirement. The principal, Angela Serio, was in the office but didn’t want to talk. She referred me to the administrative offices of the district and, tellingly, to the union.

Out on S. 61st St., Mr. Quiles was happy to speak, however. He’s not a rich man, Mr. Quiles. He says he’s been laid off from a G.M. job himself for a year and a half. That can’t be easy when you have a brood of kids that includes triplets – one of whom was standing nearby as we spoke.

Mr. Quiles is by no means opposed to unions. He was a union steward himself, he says. He believes in unions, even if, as he says, there are always those who “take advantage of the system.”

We didn’t talk too much about how people take advantage exactly. There are a million ways, and teachers probably don’t take advantage any more than anyone else would. They just happen to be part of a system with a whole lot more to take advantage of – and with union leaders whose own jobs are based on keeping every advantage they have.

He says he and his wife thought about sending some of their kids to Burbank at one time, even filled out some forms before realizing quickly they wanted more for their children and – thanks to the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – were able to send them to St. Vincent Pallotti over on N. 76th St.  The son who was standing nearby as we spoke will soon go to Wisconsin Lutheran High School.
There is a problem, as Mr. Quiles put it, with “the whole system” in MPS.

This is one of those times, it seems to me, when parents will stand back and look, perhaps in a way that never quite have before, at that whole system – and beyond it.  There are about 125,000 school-age children who live in the geographic area that makes up MPS, according to a recent study by IFF, a non-profit community development institution that recently penned a report entitled, “Choosing Performance: An Analysis of School Performance and Location in Milwaukee.” Of those, about 71,000 still attend regular MPS schools, according to the IFF study.  About 17,000 attend charter schools. About 7,000 attend suburban public schools and the rest are in private schools – almost 20,000 of whom participate in the choice program.

The challenges that face MPS are enormous: lack of family support and poverty foremost among them. But losing almost 500 teachers because of outrageously high health insurance costs has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with money finally running out – and parents, for reasons that are now clearer than ever, running for safe havens.

As Mr. Quiles says, after all, we all want what’s best for our kids.