Tom Barrett is a politician, but he has never impressed me as a media-hog. He seemed to almost shy away from the cameras after his run-in with a thug outside the State Fair. So he must be bemused to find himself as the leading man on Wisconsin’s political and policy stage. He has the president pressing him to run for governor. He is also at the center of the most significant educational reform in the history of Milwaukee. Am I the only one who sees the significant link between his flirtation with the governor’s race and his move to support a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools?
Barrett says the takeover is not about him. It is. A mayoral takeover is not some abstract concept. It is about flesh-and-blood characters. It is about Barrett, just as it was about Bloomberg in New York and Daley in Chicago when they took over failing school systems there. It is about a mayor assuming accountability.
There clearly is a need to change the governance structure at MPS. It is a system that is broke in so many ways. We have seen generations of well-intentioned school boards unable to stop the downward spiral of student performance. Mayor Barrett correctly notes that schools are a critical contributor to the character of a city. At the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, we have done studies showing how cities rise and fall on the educational accomplishments of its people.
So, yes a mayoral takeover is the right thing to do. But is this the right time to do it? That is entirely in the hands of Mayor Barrett. However, if he decides to take another run at the governor’s office, the notion of mayoral control should be put on hold until the next Milwaukee mayor is chosen.
Should Barrett simultaneously pursue both the takeover of MPS and the governor’s office, he will have to keep one eye on the campaign, one eye on running the city and one eye on MPS. At the critical moment in the life of MPS, would he be able to give it the attention it needs? Doubtful.
And what type of attention would it be? He will be the one approving the next contract with the MTEA, the teacher’s union. How tough would he be and how hard a bargain would he drive? I wouldn’t expect him to sign a bare-bones deal. After all, Barrett was the fellow who dropped his original idea for mayoral takeover when the union turned up the heat the first time he ran for mayor.
Education reform requires breaking more than a few eggs; taking people out of their comfort zone. I cannot conceive that a gubernatorial candidate would deliver the dose of strong medicine that’s needed to the union, parents, teachers, principals and politicians alike. Campaigns aren’t about hard messages. Campaigns involve painting with broad strokes about concepts like hope and change.
The bottom line is that Barrett cannot take over MPS and run for governor at the same time. He has to choose. It might sound harsh, but he has to choose between furthering his own aspirations or the aspirations of Milwaukee’s children.