Published Online: January 6, 2010

Public Divided on Milwaukee School Reform Plans

Nearly everyone who spoke Tuesday at a public hearing on the future of the Wisconsin's largest school district agreed it needed a fix, but there seemed no clear consensus on what to do.

At least 200 people showed up for the hearing Tuesday morning. But lawmakers took 3 1/2 hours to present three proposals on changing the troubled Milwaukee Public Schools, and by the time the public got to speak, many had left.

Many comments from those remaining focused on a controversial plan for Milwaukee's mayor to be given the authority to appoint the MPS superintendent.

"I trust this elected (school) board to work with the community for real reform much more than I trust a two-person junta of mayor and superintendent, with no checks and balances," said Charlie Dee, a 34-year Milwaukee resident and parent of a former MPS student.

"Reform yes, dictatorship no," he told the Senate Education Committee.

Dee said the current board is the best he's seen in decades and he'd like to know how the plan would increase student achievement. He said he used to support Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Jim Doyle — who have been outspoken supporters of the proposal. But he thought the proposal was about "raw power," he said.

Dee is part of a Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover, which includes 28 community, parent, educator and union groups. Members handed out pins and signs that read "No Takeover" circled with a red line through it.

Another group, called Education Reform Now, gave out signs that read, "MPS needs hope and change," ''Our kids can't wait," and "Say yes to mayoral governance."

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, also would give Milwaukee's mayor power to set the district's annual tax rate and shift authority for a variety of issues, including the budget, curriculum and collective bargaining, from the school board to the superintendent. A referendum to renew mayoral control would be held every seven years.

The school board would serve largely in an advisory capacity.

State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, and State Sen. Spencer Coggs, D-Milwaukee, have proposed a competing plan that would give the mayor more involvement in MPS but not as much authority as Doyle has sought. It would give the mayor line-item veto power over the school district's budget. A third proposal would give the state superintendent of public instruction more power to intervene in struggling districts.

Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, told Coggs and Grigsby there were insufficient votes for any of the proposals. He said he was afraid an impasse would keep the status quo.

"What is it going to take to move us now, both sides, to a point where we can come up with a compromise that is meaningful so we are not arguing about who is more right but what is right?" he said.

Coggs said he hoped the public testimony helped move a plan forward.

Pastor Mose Fuller, of St. Timothy Community Baptist Church in Milwaukee, waited 5 1/2 hours to tell the committee he supported mayoral control of the district, which he described as "broken and grossly dysfunctional."

"I believe the mayor is best positioned to impact all aspects of public education in city of Milwaukee," he said.

Doyle wants the Legislature to act quickly so the reform can be part of Wisconsin's application for nearly $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money for education. The application for the Race to the Top money is due Jan. 19, the first day the Legislature is scheduled to be back in session this year, making it highly unlikely it will get done by then.

If Wisconsin misses out on the first round of Race to the Top Money, expected in April, it can apply for a second round. The Legislature is scheduled to wrap up most of its business for the year by early May.

Sen. John Lehman, the committee chairman, said it will decide on the proposals sometime after the hearing. He didn't know whether that would be before Jan. 19.

Milwaukee has struggled for years with closing the achievement gap between white and minority students as well as improving overall performance.

In 2008, 74 percent of students in the state were proficient or better in 10th grade reading compared with just 40 percent for Milwaukee. In math, only 27 percent of Milwaukee 10th grade students were proficient compared with 70 percent statewide.

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