Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is clearly following a trend taking hold in most big cities, and that trend is mayoral control of the public school system. Barrett appears to be inspired by what he sees taking place in the District of Colombia School System.
Such an effort could lead to disaster if the clash between politics and the community forces a deal that ultimately ends up making matters more complicated, like they’ve become with the Los Angeles public schools.
After mobilizing his political muscle to take control of the L.A. public schools, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ended up cutting a political deal that spreads out the authority of running the schools among 27 local mayors, the school board, the superintendent, and the teachers’ union. Talk about a bureaucratic nightmare!
The idea that a mayoral takeover of public schools would improve the system is a theory still lacking data on the long-term impact on student achievement in mayor controlled school districts. In fact, a little over four years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the New York City schools, debate on whether or not his takeover effort helped to improve public schools in New York City is a matter of opinion. Reports indicate that while the city’s fourth-graders made significant improvement, eighth-grade test scores dropped, and many of the city’s high schools have become overcrowded.
Education researcher and writer Diane Ravitch has been critical of Bloomberg because what he has done to the New York public schools. She says that his top-down, business approach to running the schools has a mindset that "educating children is no different than selling toothpaste."
The Harvard Educational Review recently released a special report on mayoral takeovers and in it they said that school boards are "the only mechanism that provides a direct entry point for citizens – especially parents – to express their concerns about education to the very officials who make education policy."
The removal of the MPS school board means citizen input, particularly those of communities of color, would eliminate their voice on matters impacting school governance.
Also, research indicates that in the last five years about 35 percent of all Latino elected officials and 22 percent of African-American elected officials got elected on to school boards. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) called upon mayors seeking to take control of public schools to focus on issues outside of the classroom that affect student achievement.
The NSBA stated that rather play the role of the education czar, mayors should focus their energies on creating policies and programs that ensure safe neighborhoods for families, access to health care for the uninsured, and affordable housing; key out-of-school factors that affect our children’s ability to learn.
Mayor Barrett and the members of the Milwaukee Public Schools board do care about the future of our children, their education and this city. The mayor and school board members should use their positions working together to establish MPS as a high-performing urban school system.
Boston appears to have adopted this collaborative model. Clearly the quality of education is what improves community life, helps develop a skilled workforce and promotes economic growth. Striving to build partnerships and collaborations so that we can build Milwaukee into a global city power advances all of our standard of living to the next level.
Do we have the political will to do this?
Robert Miranda is a Latino community activist, editor-in-chief of the Milwaukee Spanish Journal and executive director of Esperanza Unida Inc. in Milwaukee.