In The News
Barrett’s ‘cynical’ decision puts city Dems in bind
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Members of his own party describe Tom Barrett’s decision Nov. 15 to run for governor while still struggling to rule the Milwaukee public schools as a calculated cynical gamble in opposition to the progressive forces he needs to turn out Democratic voters in Milwaukee.
While agreeing that Barrett is their best and best known chance in the race, they still blame the public divisiveness that will result on both the mayor and the governor who decided not to run, Jim Doyle.
That sentiment , bubbling up quietly in many conversations, was echoed more openly in strategy meetings among several grassroots coalitions as well as from diverse groups gathered 150 strong at a City Hall rally against the Doyle-Barrett concept for Milwaukee Public Schools.
News reports Nov. 15 also made it clear that, despite Doyle’s optimism about a special session he has called in Madison and despite reports that he was spreading around campaign funding promises to gather support; his opponents may well have the Democratic votes to defeat him in the legislature.
That result might turn out to be the best thing that could happen to gubernatorial candidate Barrett. Otherwise, what is the plus side of letting a mayor who says he wants to be governor help the next mayor set the MPS tax levies and choose its school superintendent?
You would only push that, the cynics say, if you don’t think you can win the governor’s seat – or actually believe there is a better mayor in the wings who can improve the city enough to improve its schools.
Consider the remarks in November by savvy and influential Milwaukee politicians, among them State Sen. Spencer Coggs attending a meeting of fellow legislators, union leaders, top educators, Rep. Gwen Moore’s office and community groups such as the NAACP at a working luncheon hosted by the Milwaukee Area Labor Council’s chief operating officer, Sheila Cochran.
“I like and respect Doyle and don’t think he’s gotten enough credit for smart administration and bailing us out of such horrible economic times, “ said Coggs. “And I like Tom (Barrett), which is why I’m frankly confused and mystified why they keep pushing at this.”
Moore’s senior advisor, Shirley Ellis, had just unveiled some hard public truths that so few newspapers in Wisconsin seemed willing to reveal – that federal “Race to the Top” funds didn’t depend on mayoral takeover and that Milwaukee at best might get a token -- maybe a quarter of one percent of help to its $1.3 billion MPS budget, if you work out the figures.
Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had said he would not muddle in local politics but still phoned several Milwaukee legislators to push for Doyle’s ideas, had been informed bluntly to back away by some top Obama politicos, insiders reveal.
Put the political equation simply: If you line up Barrett and Doyle’s support of Obama in one corner and Moore’s resistance to mayoral takeover in the other, whose corner do you expect to find the president in? Democrats universally note that it was Moore’s coat-tails to which Doyle clung in the last election, that she speaks loudest in the city in defense of Obama, and he needs her voice in the House as well as on the street.
Duncan had just told Moore in a letter, Ellis pointed out at the meeting, and had advised Doyle in phone calls that “Race to the Top” regulations did not require mayoral control, though that was the Chicago world Duncan had come from. Obama studiously avoided the issue on his Nov. 4 trip to Madison.
In fact, the big issue was local cooperation, the one thing Doyle and Barrett had guaranteed was not happening by trying to shove this concept down Milwaukee’s throat and emasculating parents and the electorate.
That alone has likely doomed Milwaukee from any notable part of the $4.5 billion aimed at helping low-income families in education.
“Cooperation is the key,” Ellis points out.
Duncan has also confirmed that the program has now moved from states that might be considered, such as Wisconsin, to states speeding along with actual plans to be vetted by June, which Wisconsin hasn’t done.
Only now has Doyle called a special session for December to give the mayor power to turn the elected board into a rubber stamp on a short time leash. Other school districts in the state would clearly rebel at such an imposition. And to many Milwaukee Democrats, a plan that refused to seek advance consensus among parents, teachers and administrators would not only disenfranchise the voters but also be bad politics.
The existence of nine different school board elections, staggered every two years, kept the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame and other outside big-money advocates from running amok with their vision of vouchers, though it led to waste of millions in neighborhood school costs and truncated maintenance. Barrett’s idea, the Democrats worry, opens the door to outside money pouring into one race to champion unproven educational ideologies.
The traditional MPS democracy can be slow but at least it’s not dictatorial. It brought clarity in direction that the city could badly use today in crime prevention, job creation and tax policy. Putting all that into one mayoral race invites equalizing whether you help kids consistently or how often you take out the garbage.
What no one wants to admit on either side of this debate is that it takes 15 to 20 years to find out if an educational idea works, be it mayoral control, outside charter schools or voucher schools. You still make change, you still go with educated guts, but you keep options open and your hands on your wallet. Neither Milwaukee yesterday nor even Chicago today followed the money as well as it should have, bringing malfeasance to voucher schools and waste to government oversight.
What we do know after 15 years is that voucher schools were hardly the answer; since most new ones don’t achieve as well as public schools with stricter standards. Charter schools run by the city have worse test results than MPS schools with rare exceptions, as state auditors confirmed in a report sought by Rep. Tamara Grigsby.
The programs touted by Obama, Duncan and others include efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone that enthusiastically fund what Milwaukee taxpayers have not been asked to do -- classes in years earlier than public schools can mandate for low-income families, courses for expectant mothers and education for the very young. In the Midwest we’re still fighting for small-class size for 4 year-old kindergarten.
That’s why it particularly angered speakers at the City Hall rally when Barrett said the takeover was a choice between those who do nothing for the children and those promoting change -- after he had spent the early part of the year praising the MPS board for its cooperation, ideas about change and financial oversight, care for children and openness to mayoral input.
“It’s really about power,” MPS Board Chairman Michael Bonds has told the public gatherings, and the harsh words between him and Barrett -- two so usually affable leaders – has added to the perplexity and mystification.
So these Democrats are asking good questions – why does Barrett keep advocating without community buy-in what so many of his natural allies in Milwaukee oppose? Does he really think he knows better? Was he lying when he first ran in 2004 and promised he was not seeking to rule the schools? Was he dissembling earlier this year when he hosted an event at the Workforce Investment Board honoring Bonds while privately discussing takeover with Doyle?
All this underpins the cynicism: Where else can the progressive coalitions go? Certainly not to the distasteful anti-worker ideology of Scott Walker or Mark Neumann, the likely GOP opponents.
And is that what Mayor Tom is counting on? If Barrett is the last hope standing – and certainly the most likeable politician offered by either party -- perhaps he believes he and Doyle can push this change through and still get the Democrats to turn out for him.
There’s a big danger there if you look at the Obama lesson from 2008 – perfect timing matched with true enthusiasm and vigorous belief among your strongest voters. Most of the state doesn’t give a fig in a governor’s race, pro or con, who runs Milwaukee schools, but for Democrats the city is the largest of three essential legs (along with Madison and the Fox Valley).
Excited turnout vs. tepid 51%? No contest. If there is not enthusiasm on the Milwaukee street, it wouldn’t just be cynical to believe Barrett can still win. It would be plain dumb.