Dead Idea Walking

It was an off-the-record conversation early last summer with a major figure in education politics in Wisconsin. I suggested that if a serious move was made to put the Milwaukee Public Schools under mayoral control, the outcome would be decided by a few specific people.

"Gwen Moore?" the source suggested.

No, but what an interesting thought. And it pointed to several key reasons that the proposal, when it came a couple months later from Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, faltered from the start, never picked up momentum, and soon became a dead idea walking.

When Moore, the popular congresswoman who is influential among Milwaukee's African Americans, promptly came out against mayoral control, her decision pointed to three major flaws in the Doyle-Barrett plan:

*** There is almost no evidence that Doyle and Barrett prepared a strategy for building support for the idea before they went public. Was the fight even worth instigating if it had garnered so little support over the preceding years, and there was so little evidence anything had changed?

It was clear that opposition, particularly in the African American community, was going to be strong, and there was a good chance it would be fatal to the proposal. The debate would be heavily shaped by race-sensitive politics in the following months, and it appears Doyle and Barrett were not ready to deal with it.

*** Doyle and Barrett didn't put up a good fight. They rolled out the proposal in a stumbling fashion, with little effort to make a case for the change, with few specific arguments for why they were making the push, and with few allies.

Moore, for example, probably would never have supported the idea. But it was a bad omen when she promptly came out against the takeover. When a high-level private conversation was finally held with her, she didn't budge.

Pursuit of the proposal suffered from huge timing problems. Two days after Doyle and Barrett announced they favored mayoral control, word spread that Doyle would not seek re-election, which immediately reduced his clout and weakened his sway over legislators who would have to approve
the plan.

The same weekend that Doyle's election decision became known, Barrett was attacked and seriously injured while trying to help a woman as he left the Wisconsin State Fair. That knocked Barrett off the stage for several weeks. And the two events led to Barrett becoming the dominant contender for the Democratic nomination for governor-which complicated the task of building support forMPS governance reform even more.

*** The organizations and allies who might have been given pause by the unexpected support for the plan from someone like Moore instead had a golden opportunity to organize opposition. Barrett was offstage, and there was little sign that Doyle or anyone else was mobilizing support for the governance change.

Unions, black community organizations, and left-of-center groups (largely the same array of opponents that has fought the private-school voucher program in Milwaukee) quickly began to hold public events and rally opposition. Their coalition was far more effective than anything supporters of the change mustered.

The debate over mayoral control could have been a lot more than it was. It could have been a real chance to discuss how to energize the deeply troubled MPS system. It could have been a catalyst for re-energizing the whole subject of improving education in Milwaukee.

Instead, it became a plodding tour of why things don't change easily in Milwaukee and a political exercise that broke almost no new ground.

MPS's problems won't go away, and the next governor and Legislature will have to face the issues of poor achievement and mounting financial ills. The legacy of the failed mayoral takeover will likely create more hesitancy about proposing big changes while adding to the entrenched power of those currently leading the system.

Insiders say Doyle was the prime mover for a mayoral takeover. Talk of mayoral control had been dormant for years. In 2003, mayoral candidate Barrett came out in favor of the idea, but dropped it immediately when he saw how much opposition there was, and how little support. Doyle had never made an issue of MPS governance in his first six-plus years as governor. It was only a subject of idle talk among Milwaukee civic leaders.

But Doyle has shown increasing frustration with MPS and Milwaukee education politics. When school board members, in a move that came without warning, voted in September 2008 to look into whether it was legal to dissolve MPS because of its financial mess, Doyle reacted strongly.

Within a short time, he lined up private philanthropic support for hiring McKinsey & Co., a global consulting giant, to look at how MPS does business. When the report came out in April 2009, it said as much as $103 million a year could be saved by changing practices such as paying part-time employees full health insurance and by reining in generous retiree benefits.

Even then, Doyle and Barrett moved cautiously. They created an advisory committee for Barrett on MPS issues, and both the governor and mayor began to emphasize the need for action if Wisconsin was to win a share of the $4.3 billion in competitive federal education grants called the Race to the Top fund.

They also began to emphasize the need to pick a top-flight MPS superintendent to replace the retiring William Andrekopoulos. But neither Doyle nor Barrett would directly say they wanted the kind of mayoral control that had attracted attention in Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

It wasn't until mid-August that Doyle told a Journal Sentinel editorial writer on the record that he wanted the change-an almost casual unveiling accompanied by no big roll-out.

Doyle and Barrett argued that a mayoral takeover would make it easier to hire a big-time superintendent who could boost Wisconsin's dubious chances of winning the Race to the Top money. But they gave precious few other details of what they thought a mayoral takeover would accomplish.

They apparently decided to not attack the existing school board over the quality of its work, perhaps to avoid personalizing the issue. But the performance of the board in recent years might have given Doyle and Barrett strong material to make their case. They might have pointed out the small amount of attention given to student achievement and the failure to address the enormous cost of retiree health benefits.

For sure, one forceful lesson of recent months is how racial polarization permeates anything related to education in Milwaukee. With pretty much the widest achievement gaps between black and white students in the country, you might think Milwaukee would be ripe for rising reform sentiment among African Americans. You would be wrong.

The strong support for the current power structure among African American legislators, NAACP leaders, and others proved highly influential as the mayoral control debate unfolded. While the number of people involved was actually small-several hundred, at most-there was no similar groundswell for a mayoral takeover.
The prospects for mayoral control looked like they were picking up steam when state Sen. Lena Taylor and state Rep. Pedro Colon, with support from Doyle and Barrett, proposed that the mayor be given almost total power over MPS management and budget making, while an elected (but very weak) school board was kept alive.

Taylor's role signaled a split in the Milwaukee black legislative caucus. But it quickly became clear that Taylor and Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines, who also supported the mayoral takeover, were not stirring up support.

State Sen. Spencer Coggs and state Rep. Tamara Grigsby put forth their own plan, which gave the mayor a lesser role in MPS and kept the school board in control. Compromise talks between the two sides, including an offer from Barrett to leave the school board with significant influence, ended with no agreement.

The reason was simple: The two sides wouldn't budge on the core question of whether the mayor (Barrett or his successor) or the board should have the main say over picking the MPS superintendent and making budget decisions.

Defenders of the elected school board argued it was wrong to take away the people's right to choose school leaders. It was an interesting argument, given that voter turnout in Milwaukee school board elections is pathetic (sometimes 10%
or less) and even lower in predominantly African American neighborhoods. It is not unusual for elections to be uncontested.

Yet elected officials, including school board members, are treated like major figures in much of the black community. Even Charlene Hardin, a board member whose service for 12 years was remarkably lacking in merit, was honored.

Perhaps the most important factor in the dispute is who the school board members are not: They are not appointees of someone downtown. Opponents of mayoral control were strongly motivated by not wanting the existing Milwaukee power structure-white, business-oriented, in many cases conservative -making decisions over who runs the schools.

If there was a key moment in shaping the course of events, it may well have come months before Doyle and Barrett even unveiled their support for a mayoral takeover. That would be the night the Milwaukee School Board elected Michael Bonds as its president.

Peter Blewett had been president for the previous year. A college English professor, he was an early and adamant defender of the elected school board. But he was also the kind of foe whose behavior could have helped those who wanted mayoral control. Blewett was given to pompous rhetoric and defense of the status quo, and he was white.

Blewett wanted to return as president, but it appears that Bonds was successful in convincing a majority of the school board that he would be a more effective defender of their status. He was a fresh face, with only two years on the board. He had strong ideas on how to change the way MPS does business, and he is a forceful leader. Moreover, Bonds is black.

Only three of the nine board members are black, and there are no other minority members on the school board-this in a district where 88% of the students are non-white.

Blewett withdrew. Bonds won and quickly emerged as a heavyweight. You had to give Bonds credit-he was focused, hard working, and he had lots of proposals for change, many of them involving giving more power to the school board, at the expense of the MPS administration. He drew strong support from many African American leaders.

With the rise of Bonds, the board had a new lease on support from the black community. State Rep. Polly Williams and NAACP leaders lined up behind him. Bonds argued that he was running the board in a new and effective way. While board critics were still dubious, others found it an appealing message. Give him a chance, they argued.

Bonds, meanwhile, openly pointed to the racial connotations of the struggle: No sooner had a black man been picked to head the board than the white establishment (Doyle, Barrett, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, the Journal Sentinel, and business leaders) wanted to take away his power.

The fighting among Milwaukee politicians illuminated another key political reality: A lot of the power to control MPS is actually held by people who aren't from Milwaukee.

That included teachers union leaders and Republicans in the Legislature, but especially Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly. In particular it meant Russ Decker, the Senate majority leader from tiny Schofield, near Wausau.

Consider this: In November, Doyle played what he probably expected to be a powerful trump card: an education-focused visit to Madison by President Barack Obama.

Obama did not directly endorse Doyle's proposals for governing MPS. But he didn't need to-his presence alone sent the message. And in a telephone interview with me, for use in the Journal Sentinel, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who accompanied Obama, made the message all but explicit. While declining to say that mayoral control should be adopted in Milwaukee, he said it was time for major change in Milwaukee and an end to business as usual.

So you had the president of the United States, the secretary of education, the governor of Wisconsin and the mayor of Milwaukee-all Democrats-coming down firmly for what they wanted to see happen in the Democratic-controlled Wisconsin Legislature.

And they didn't prevail. Decker stiff-armed them all. He refused to budge. Doyle called a special session in December to consider education issues, and it adjourned without even discussing the issue.

Theories abound on Decker's motivation. He said he didn't have the votes to make it worthwhile, a matter of considerable debate. Others suggested he was acting out of longstanding spite for Doyle. Others suggested his alliances with teachers unions were behind his intransigence. Or maybe it was Decker's unhappy relationship with Milwaukee politicians. Or maybe he just thought it was a bad idea.

Assembly Democratic leaders weren't interested either. They said they'd be glad to take action if the Milwaukee legislative delegation united around a plan, which they knew wasn't happening.

In other circumstances, Republicans might have supported mayoral control. They don't like the way MPS is run. But on this occasion they were comfortable standing on the sidelines, in large part because Barrett had become the de facto Democratic candidate for governor. No Republican wanted to hand him a major accomplishment as the campaign heated up.

In early March, Wisconsin was knocked out of the running for federal "Race to the Top" education grants by states with bolder plans for change. Doyle and Barrett, as well as Journal Sentinel editorials, continued to call for mayoral control. But substantial action appeared highly unlikely, at least until after the November election.

Bonds and the board still had the power, and they used it, moving so quickly through a superintendent search that critics said it was just one more effort to forestall legislative action.

Here's an interesting contrast: When Barrett came out for mayoral control in August, Bonds quit the mayor's advisory committee on MPS and barred MPS employees from cooperating with the group.

But when Bonds asked Barrett to join a dozen community leaders in January to participate in an interview session with the three superintendent finalists, Barrett agreed. For someone who wanted to pick the new chief, Barrett's role ended up being minuscule: In a closed session, he was allowed only to ask a scripted question and was not given the full resumes of the candidates.

Six months after Doyle and Barrett proposed taking the power over MPS away from the school board, the board had not only sealed a deal with a new superintendent, Gregory Thornton, but taken substantial power from the superintendent and given it to itself. The board was in firmer control of MPS than at any time since a reorganization of MPS two decades ago.

Did the idea of mayoral control have merit? That debate was never engaged in a substantial fashion. The record from cities around the country is actually quite mixed. Even in the cities where powerful mayors and powerful superintendents have caused the biggest stir by shaking things up, the actual impact is debatable.

The overall muscle tone of the Chicago schools system clearly seems to have improved since Mayor Richard Daley was given control in 1995. But Daley was also given a big wad of money and other tools when the Illinois legislature acted, and new money was never on the table during the debate about MPS governance.

Furthermore, actual student achievement in Chicago remains poor, and how much it has improved remains a subject of debate.

Some key players stayed on the sidelines of the Milwaukee debate, like former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller. He felt mayoral control wouldn't do much without other changes, such as overhaul of the teacher contract.

Ultimately, you have to wonder how serious many political leaders, both in Milwaukee and across the state, are about bringing change to the Milwaukee schools.
The entrenched powers are exactly that: entrenched. Opponents of mayoral control said often that they were not just defending the status quo but want to see real change. But there is little political momentum for ideas they advocate, especially for increasing education spending across Wisconsin.

In the end, opponents of mayoral control were far better at articulating what change they didn't want than what change they did want. And supporters weren't any better at making a case for what mayoral control would accomplish.

If you asked all 132 members of the Assembly and Senate whether they were satisfied with MPS's performance, the vote would surely be 132-0 "no." But when a plan was put forward to make a major change in MPS governance, it didn't even make it to the floor.

Alan J. Borsuk, a former reporter and editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School

MPS in a glance

Enrollment: About 82,500
Composition: 57% black, 23% Hispanic, 12% white, 4% Asian, 4% other
Percent in poverty: 79%
Percent truant: 76% (high school)
Graduation rate: about 68%
Test scores: 40% or less of 10th-graders rated proficient or better in each of five subject areas
Budget: $1.1 billion-plus
Number of schools: about 200
Number of employees: about 11,000