Milwaukee Mayor's Call To Scrap Public Schools Stirs Furor

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The publication of an article by Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee calling for the existing public school system in urban areas to "ultimately be scrapped" has caused a stir in the Wisconsin city.

The Mayor's article, which was included in the inaugural issue of a public-policy journal published by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research institute, was front-page news Jan. 2 in the Milwaukee Sentinel.

The headline read, "Mayor sees end of urban schools."

In the article, which was based on the text of a speech the Mayor delivered in November 1990, Mr. Norquist advocates replacing failing city schools with "essentially a choice or voucher system."

"We should give city parents the purchasing power they need to enroll their children in any public or private, non-sectarian school that complies with essential standards," he writes. "Schools that fail to keep kids in schools, or teach them well, will either go out of business-teachers, principal, administrators, and all or change their ways."

The article primarily focused on how American cities can be rebuilt, not on education.

It did not mention the parental-choice program already operating in Milwaukee, under which a limited number of low-income students attend private, nonsectarian schools at public expense.

Following the newspaper reports, some local editorial writers and broadcasters criticized the Mayor for proposing to eliminate city schools.

But a spokesman for the Mayor said that literal interpretation was not what Mr. Norquist intended.

"It was in no way a universal condemnation of public schools," said David Webster, an assistant to the Mayor. "They need to exist. He does believe that market forces should come to bear on the schools, that it should not be a monopoly."

Mr. Webster added that the Mayor is a strong supporter of the city's school superintendent, Howard L. Fuller, who favors the Milwaukee choice program.

Since the article was published, the Mayor's office also has been "getting a lot of affirming mail, saying we've got to step tinkering around the edges" with school reform, Mr. Webster said.

But Mary Bills, a member of the Milwaukee school board, said she thought the Mayor's comments set back the district's efforts to improve. "It didn't help," she said.

"It just didn't help. I personally think we would all be better served if he emphasized cooperation rather than the competition of choice, and cooperation with us as another governmental body."

School-Closing Proposal

Mr. Fuller, however, issued a statement saying he was "pleased that Mayor Norquist recognizes some of the major issues that are facing urban school systems across the country."

The superintendent also noted that he was pushing for the authority to close failing schools and reopen them "with a staff and curriculum that would allow students to learn."

The superintendent's proposal to obtain such authority from the Wisconsin legislature was approved by the school board in December.

The school district is also seeking exemptions from seniority provisions in the teachers' contract that would allow administrators to reassign teachers to new schools.

Ms. Bills called the proposal "a very appealing concept to poor parents who feel schools have failed them, and very appealing to those people who just want something done."

Last week, members of the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on the board's legislative requests.

The proposal to close under-performing schools has been opposed by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and the Administrators and Supervisors Council.

Michael Langyel, president of the M.T.E.A., said the district has not defined what constitutes a "failing" school. And he said the school system does not have a "fair" evaluation system for determining which teachers are performing well.

"Until the school system has an adequate evaluation procedure and identifies what it means by 'failing schools' or bad teachers,' then we just view this as rhetoric," Mr. Langyel said.

The union president declined to comment on the Mayor's article.

Vol. 11, Issue 17, Page 5

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