Ted Bobrow

School wars go nuclear?

By - Feb 10th, 2010 01:04 pm
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highstandardsleadspot1When I interviewed Mayor Tom Barrett about his proposal to take over MPS last August, he insisted it was no power grab.

It was all about the kids, Mayor Barrett said. He believed the change was the right thing. He acknowledged that the plan was controversial but the legislative session in Madison would be over by the end of the year and, one way or another, we’d all move on by 2010.

Well here it is February, and we’re still talking about it. The Democratic leaders in the state legislature show no interest in bringing the plan to a vote, and there’s little evidence the bill would pass.

In an apparent change of heart, Mayor Barrett continues to push the idea. With his experience in Madison and Washington, you’d expect Barrett to know how to count and to know when to stop pushing for a piece of legislation that doesn’t have enough votes.

But Barrett is also running for statewide office, and he appears to believe this issue will play well with voters across Wisconsin. It gives him the opportunity to run against type and show that he’s willing to take on the teachers union, usually a reliable supporter of Democrats, in support of a popular initiative.

Public relations executive Jeff Fleming, an unpaid consultant to Barrett, said that despite the campaign waged by opponents, most people believe it makes sense for the mayor to run the schools.

Slim Pickens learns to love the bomb in "Dr. Strangelove". Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Slim Pickens learns to love the bomb in “Dr. Strangelove.” Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Some of us who don’t really care who runs MPS and just want to see the schools improve were taken aback by the announcement that State Superintendent Tony Evers is moving forward with plans to withhold $175 million in federal funds from MPS.

One could argue MPS could survive on a tighter budget but reducing its funding so drastically seems unlikely to improve things.

Call it the nuclear option where the idea seems to be to destroy MPS in order to save it.

Now Barrett and Evers aren’t the only players in this drama. Gov. Jim Doyle is responsible for giving this issue visibility, since it requires state approval; but it is Barrett who is being identified as its chief champion at least by voters.

Barrett told Milwaukee magazine’s Kurt Chandler that he approached Doyle in 2008 to work together on the governance change and hasn’t backed down. He has criticized the Milwaukee School Board’s appointment of a new superintendent as unhelpful though bringing in new leadership seems to be what everyone agrees is needed for Milwaukee’s kids.

So we appear to be in a kind of stalemate with everyone agreeing that the status quo is unacceptable but little hope of major change on the horizon.

The situation seems to have a lot in common with health care on the national level. When elected officials believe that they can win support simply by opposing something, gridlock ensues. Time will tell what happens on election day but in the meantime, it’s clear who loses — the students.

Categories: Gray Matter, Politics

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