Thompson Threatens a Takeover for Milwaukee

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Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has delivered a stern warning to the Milwaukee school district that it must meet four benchmarks of student achievement or risk losing its elected school board.

In his annual State of the State Address last week, the Republican governor gave Wisconsin's largest and most troubled school system until June 2000 to improve its dropout, attendance, and graduation rates and its 3rd grade reading-test scores. If not, Gov. Thompson said he would seek legislative approval for a three-member appointed commission to replace the nine-member elected board of the Milwaukee public schools.

"It's time for MPS to stand and deliver or step aside," he said.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson

The blunt command reflects the growing impatience among officials in many states with the failings of large, urban districts. And like other politicians trying to hold city schools accountable, Mr. Thompson suggested that the state's role was to offer new leadership, not largess.

The only new money he extended toward Milwaukee, which would be available in the 1998-99 school year if it received lawmakers' approval, was $2.5 million for after-school programs and tuition assistance for minority teaching students.

Wisconsin is not one of the 23 states that have passed laws authorizing takeovers of school districts, so the governor's plan would have to pass legislative muster. ("Racial Issues Cloud State Takeovers," Jan. 14, 1998.)

Mixed Reaction

Milwaukee educators, board members, and administrators expressed varied reactions to the speech, but most said the 106,000-student system was up to the challenge. "We are confident that we can meet these goals," board President Joseph Fisher said.

Board member Christina Sinicki agreed. But, she added, "I don't take well to threats. We are accountable to the city of Milwaukee, and they're the ones who should decide whether we have an elected or appointed board."

Another member, Leon Todd, said the district has already put in place higher academic standards, including a high school graduation test and a 9th grade algebra requirement. But those academic rigors are driving some students to drop out, Mr. Todd said.

In 1996-97, 13.5 percent of Milwaukee's high school students left. Gov. Thompson wants the district to reduce that rate to 9 percent.

Several Milwaukee educators said the state fails to acknowledge the role of poverty in a district where four out of five students come from low-income families. "Some kids don't know where their next meal is coming from," said Thomas F. Balistreri, the principal of Rufus King High School.

Sam Carmen, the executive director of the 9,000-member Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said he was disappointed the governor did not offer more money for summer school and smaller classes.

"He put out a challenge for Milwaukee without offering any assistance," Mr. Carmen said.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a national coalition of urban districts, agreed that the state was shortchanging the Milwaukee schools. "State leaders are threatening urban districts after starving them to death," he said.

Reform Efforts

Summer school has become a priority of the district administration, led since October by Superintendent Alan S. Brown. The district is trying to gather $12.9 million for a voluntary, six-week session.

Mr. Brown said the $2.5 million proposed by the governor would cover only half the cost of a proposed after-school program for 25,000 students in grades K-8.

As for Mr. Thompson's suggestion that the district direct 10 percent of its transportation budget toward building neighborhood schools, Mr. Brown said reconfiguring the $54 million program would be difficult. He said he was wary of disrupting busing to popular magnet schools, schools outside Milwaukee that participate in a city-county exchange program, and schools striving for racial diversity under court-ordered desegregation.

Mr. Brown said he agreed with the governor's recommendation to reopen failing schools with new staffs without regard to seniority, though a bill that allowed such reconstitution was successfully challenged by the teachers' union in court two years ago.

The governor announced his plan for Milwaukee without enlisting strong backing from Mayor John Norquist and state Superintendent John T. Benson, who he said would help him appoint new leadership if the schools don't improve. Both expressed lukewarm support for the idea.

"The mayor's number-one educational priority is expanding school choice," said spokesman Jeff Fleming, referring to efforts to include religious schools in Milwaukee's program that gives private tuition vouchers to poor children.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Benson, Debra A. Bougie, said the state chief is focused on helping the district build neighborhood schools where parents and teachers have broad decisionmaking powers.

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