In The News
Let’s imagine Milwaukee Schools’ politicized future
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
The Year: 2012
The Place: Milwaukee:
In a rambling but revealing interview with Wisconsin’s largest newspaper, the new mayor for the city of Milwaukee, Scott Walker, discussed in greater detail his mayoral takeover of public education.
First, Walker said, he would sell 40 public school properties to condominium developers from Waukesha and Burnett counties he has worked with before. Included was the valuable Riverside High School building and its nearby environmental center.
In a meeting with the editorial board for the Sinclair Journal Sentinel, the recently acquired newspaper flagship for a national media chain that supported Walker in the recent city election, Walker also revealed his choices for the newly appointed Milwaukee Public Schools Board.
His selections would duplicate the current board of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce “because we have to get our schools operating again on the business models that served the nation so well in the Tommy Thompson and George W. Bush eras,” he said.
“The MMAC opposition to paid sick-days also confirms these business leaders understand caution in expecting education to change the future for our young people. This is the kind of dutiful debate-free school board we need.”
He also revealed his pick for superintendent of schools -- the recently retired president of the Bradley Foundation “who will return test results and tough fiscal discipline to our relationship with both teachers and the minority populations,” he said.
Other revelations by Walker:
Twenty city parks as well as the school properties will be sold to commercial developers.
Land sales and swaps will allow less cost in expanding I-94 to 14 freeway lanes from the Waukesha county line not just to Miller Park but also to a new jump south at the stadium “to cut 20 minutes off the travel time for Chicago baseball fans by bypassing downtown,” as Walker has proposed.
Kindergarten will be eliminated, as will extracurricular music and theater. “Not sports or forensics,” said Walker. “I did well at forensics. But I’m still looking at cutting science fairs.”
Since there will be fewer schools and tighter costs, class sizes would be allowed “to naturally rise to a very manageable threshold of 35 students.”
Teacher certification requirements will be eliminated to let voucher schools expand county wide and cover any family making under $300,000 a year. Walker has asked defeated state Senate candidate Leah Vukmir to lobby for that effort in Madison.
Private companies will develop coffee shops open to the public to replace 14 high school cafeterias around the city and Walker will let students 12 and up work in these facilities in exchange for education credits that can be used as part of graduation requirements. At a salary of $200,000 a year, he put recently defeated legislator Jeff Stone in charge of this privatization initiative.
“We have to put schools on a responsible management footing and prepare students through practical experience with the hardships awaiting them in the real world,” said the mayor. “Milwaukee needs an image as a cheap place to work.”
He also spoke candidly about the political turnarounds that helped him win office and confound even conservative pundits. The seeds were planted in 2010 when Walker sought the Republican primary endorsement in the race for governor. He ran under the slogan:
BIRTHERS AND BIRCHERS UNITE
IN MY ANTI-ANY-TAX CAMPAIGN!
That didn’t gain the necessary traction in northern Wisconsin, leading the candidate to fire the high-priced PR firms recommended by Michael Steele and Sarah Palin.
“I thought rather naively that what I had done to Milwaukee would have an appeal in the rest of the state,” Walker later admitted, “but what I learned was that whatever you did to Milwaukee didn’t amount to a hill of beans in getting votes from the outside.”
So he lost to Mark (What Me Worry?) Neumann, who then also lost. “I think we underestimated the popularity of Obama’s health care reform,” admitted Joe Wilson, the newly emigrated South Carolinian who became the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, in explaining the remarkable 2010 Democratic sweep of federal and statewide offices.
The ever resourceful GOP rebounded, however, in the final months of the outgoing Democratic governor’s tenure. Jim Doyle had announced in 2009 that he would not seek re-election but, despite opposition from many Milwaukee Democrats, he atypically kept a campaign pledge – this one to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
He introduced legislation to change the state laws and state Constitution to allow a direct mayoral takeover of MPS, eliminating the voters’ historic direct elections of the public school board.
GOP members of the Senate and Assembly surprisingly reversed ideology and switched sides to give Doyle enough votes. They were bolstered by a supportive legal opinion from the outgoing GOP attorney general, Van Hollen.
Even more important was the strong indications from the now conservative-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court, whose Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman were largely elected by big money from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and race-tinged ads from rightwing groups. Through back channels, the court indicated to the GOP that a majority would allow property tax relief as a mayoral prerogative in Milwaukee, so that not just improved classroom performance would be used to measure government "Race to the Top" stimulus funding for public schools.
Another stunning development came from Barrett, who had clearly lost progressive backing in the city but was still expected fight for his job. Unexpectedly he accepted an offer from the Obama administration and took a federal judgeship in Oregon.
Walker then resigned as county executive, moved from Wauwatos to Milwaukee and reversed his opposition to federal stimulus money by pledging to use his new school powers to “virtually eliminate property taxes for city homeowners.”
His only notable opposition was the acting mayor and former head of the Common Council, Willie Hines, who had also supported mayoral takeover of the schools. Easily defeated in the April 2012 election, Hines muttered something about “chickens coming home to roost” and “unintended consequences of political maneuvering.”
Now facing a gathering storm of organized opponents, Walker dismisses calls that he should work with all sides of the school issue – parents, students, teachers and professional educators as well as the business community. “That’s like trying to put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “The electorate decided they want mayoral dictatorship, not leadership.”
“The truth is, the public doesn’t want any debate among rival ideas on the school board. That’s why there was such low voter turnout in school board races. The public wants action, less spending and to heck with what works.”
“That’s why I won,” Walker assured the editorial board. “The mayor has all these issues that are at the front of public concern -- property taxes, clean drinking water, fighting all that inner city crime and lawlessness, garbage pickup, holding wages down so business can thrive, clearing snow off the streets, lighting the holiday tree and keeping Summerfest inexpensive.”
“Somewhere on that list will always be a proportionate concern for public education. Let’s just keep it in perspective.”
Asked if he saw any irony in a Marquette University dropout now being in charge of Milwaukee public schools, Walker grinned: “Life’s a funny old dog, isn’t it?”