WPRI President George Lightbourn last week posed a list of questions he hoped Milwaukee Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett would answer. One in particular caught by interest:
Do you still favor mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools?
Barrett first floated the idea of a mayoral-appointed MPS school board in 2003, and actually took a serious crack at making it happen in 2009 and 2010. That effort, which was well chronicled by Alan Borsuk, could politely be described as a political train-wreck. Despite the support of Barrett, Governor Doyle, the two most powerful Democrats in the Milwaukee legislative delegation, and the editorial page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the proposal never made it to the floor of the legislature.
At the time I failed to see much point in a governance change. Predictors of the success of such reforms, such as unity of purpose among relevant actors, were absent in Milwaukee. More troubling to me was the failure of anyone to articulate what a mayoral-appointed board could do differently than an elected one. No matter how board members came to serve, they were severely constricted by state and federal mandates as well a union contracts.
However the situation has changed dramatically since 2010. Act 10 gives the MPS board increased power, which they have already shown a willingness to use. In November the board approved increased employee benefit contributions as well as salary freezes designed to reduce the district’s unfunded health care liability. In March the board voted to end the district’s second teacher pension, a move that will likely put more funds into the classroom.
The board’s newfound willingness to take action on two longstanding fiscal issues makes me wonder; was the MPS board Barrett wanted to replace unwilling, or simply unable to make positive changes?
Some might argue it is the Superintendent and not the board driving MPS’ recent actions. Perhaps, but it was the board that hired Thornton in a process criticized by Barrett as
“a game of beat the clock” where “the only criteria that is important is to get this done quickly to thwart any legislative activity.”
Governor Walker’s expansion of income eligibility and elimination of the enrollment cap for Milwaukee’s voucher program makes it pretty clear where he stands on Milwaukee education reform. If you do not like school choice, you probably do not like Scott Walker. Like my boss, I’d like to know where Tom Barrett stands on this issue.