Reducing Crime, Violence, Disproportionate Black Incarceration Rates and Prison/Jail Overcrowding Through Education Reform of MPS
Q: Why as a top law enforcement official have you continually been outspoken on the failure of K-12 public education in Milwaukee?
For the seven years that I have been Sheriff of Milwaukee County, I have been outspoken on the research-proven nexus between school failure, violent crime and criminal behavior; between school failure and disproportionate minority incarceration rates; and between school failure and jail and prison overcrowding. The connection is clear and that’s why I have had from day one a sense of urgency about the need to fundamentally improve K-12 public education in Milwaukee—and that means Milwaukee Public Schools.
If we’re ever going to solve the problems of poverty, crime, violence, disproportionate minority incarceration rates and jail and prison overcrowding, no remedy is more important than dramatically improving MPS.
Q: The latest idea of education reform for Milwaukee Public Schools is mayoral control. Talk about that.
Unfortunately, K-12 public education in America has always been politicized. I want to remind politicians and special interests that children are not mere pawns of the state to be used to achieve some political end. Parents alone should decide how and where their kids are educated, not the government. The proper role of government in education is to provide the funds for this to happen, set some basic standards and then get out of the way. The government monopoly of K-12 public education in our urban centers today is a big part of the problem. Competition encourages innovation and serves as an incentive to succeed.
I’m suspect about the timing of Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett’s announcement for structural reform at MPS. Doyle has been governor for seven years and only now on his way out the door does he see a need to get involved in the affairs at MPS. When did he get this moment of sudden intuitive understanding? Up until now, other than the occasional “we have to improve education” statement from his office, he’s been missing in action. I find his sudden concern to be disingenuous. He certainly wasn’t thinking about parents, kids and taxpayers when his last budget eliminated the Qualified Economic Offer aspect of collective bargaining, which kept costs under control. WEAC has been trying to get him to do this since he became governor and in politics timing is everything so this must have been a going away present to the teaching establishment who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. This is where his allegiance lies. Currently, college is out of the reach of an increasing number of Americans. Eliminating the QEO is going to put K-12 education out of the reach of taxpayers.
As for Mayor Barrett’s interest in taking control of MPS, I find it peculiar that for the six years he’s been chief executive of the city and as MPS continued to fall further into an abyss of failure he too demonstrated no sense of urgency other than the occasional statement of “concern” about what was occurring. Most big city mayors who have pushed for mayoral control of schools have done so immediately after taking office and usually ran for office on the issue, sending a signal that it was one of their top priorities. Mayor Barrett introduced the issue when he first ran for mayor in 2003, and when he got considerable blowback quickly abandoned the issue. He lacked the will to take the political risk in trying to get elected and let over five years of school failure go by before wanting to try it again.
Q: What then do you believe is behind their sudden press for reform?
I’ll tell you what the incentive is. As the old saying goes, when politicians are calling for action all you have to do is follow the money. In this case it’s the $4.3 billion being made available to states under President Obama’s Race to the Topeducation initiative. States that enact reform measures will qualify for education grants. It’s a money grab, an additional funding source to cover expanding school spending that the state and local budgets cannot afford. These two obviously believe that we can spend our way to excellence in education. History and research show otherwise.
Both have talked about the need to change the school funding formula but have stayed away from the benefit ratio problem where most of the money spent on education (nearly 70%) goes to salaries, benefits and pensions and very little actually reaches the classroom. Doyle and Barrett remain silent when this financial issue comes up.
Q: Why is Mayor Barrett’s call for mayoral takeover meeting with such resistance and do you favor a change in governance over MPS?
First of all what I favor doesn’t matter. I’ve looked at both sides, the pros and cons of mayoral control, and I’ll talk about that later. As to why the Doyle/Barrett idea has met with so much resistance--just look at how it was presented. These guys did not thoroughly think this thing through. They’ve offered no comprehensive plan in support of this change effort. A plan is a diagrammed method of proceeding. In other words where are we going, how are we going to get there, and when there, what are we going to do? Barrett has offered a few abstract concepts but no method of proceeding. They obviously did not take the time to meet with the competing constituencies that have a vested interest in this issue in order to garner support before proceeding.
Yes, I know, he formed a dreaded committee. There are several sayings about committees. When you want to stop progress from happening, form a committee. Another, and my favorite, is that a committee is a group of the unwilling, chosen from the unfit, to do the unnecessary. Does the mayor know where the common council collectively stands on this issue? What about the Milwaukee area state legislative delegation? Or Milwaukee’s minority community? Or the teachers union? Right now there are factions of these groups that are going to try to stop this. Why do their concerns have to be assuaged? Because any one of these groups can stop this from happening.
Q: Why is it important to have these groups on board?
Because to try to force this change on the opponents of mayoral takeover by ramming it through is going to leave some large constituency group or groups feeling resentful, angry, and left out, and potentially widen the racial divide that already exists in Milwaukee. That works if you have all the leverage to make it happen. The mayor doesn’t have all the leverage here. We’re not talking about some small change idea; this is monumental. We’ve seen this before from this mayor. Remember his grand announcement that the city would be wired for Wi-Fi? It never happened and the project eventually was scrapped. Remember his announcement that the Pabst City project would start? That too was defeated. We’ve seen this before where Mayor Barrett throws out a grand idea that may have merit but he did so unprepared.
Change creates anxiety. You have to spoon-feed people change of this magnitude at a rate that they can handle. You must take the time to lay the groundwork, prepare people and address their concerns and calm their fears about what you’re about to do.
Will changing the governance structure at MPS really make a difference?
Not necessarily. This is where too many people are missing the boat. Everybody is talking about this as if once a mayor takes over, magically kids from distressed families will become academically inclined and begin to excel. It’s important to point out that who should govern MPS only deals with the structural issue. It’s a technical fix. It provides the framework for meaningful change to occur inside the classroom. Technical fixes applied to a problem that requires an adaptive fix will only lead to short term miniscule results. The more important issue is the reform needed operationally. That’s adaptive change and will require a change in the way MPS currently behaves.
This is at the heart of why I say that Mayor Barrett and Governor Doyle didn’t think this thing through. They did not present a comprehensive plan, a method of proceeding with this proposed takeover along with a vision for what MPS will look like and in what time frame it will occur, as did the mayors in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. Where is the written plan that people can examine? Barrett and Doyle basically threw a match down on a dry field. Some quickly heaped praise on these two and called it bold leadership. Starting a brush fire isn’t leadership. Having a plan to put out the fire and control the emotional backlash so that rational discussion can occur is an act of leadership. By not taking their time and being more prepared they currently have lost control of the issue.
Q: In your opinion which of these operational aspects is the most critical?
Without a doubt increasing parental involvement.
Because if the parents don’t care, their kids won’t care. If education is not revered inside the home, it’s impossible for kids to place much value in it. In the average 2009 SAT scores by race and ethnicity black student scores again were the lowest, behind Whites, Asians, American Indians, and Hispanics and the achievement gap continues to widen. Asian-American students had the most dramatic gains in all categories and at all income levels (throwing that lame poverty excuse out the window). The college board officials who run the exam believe that the gains by Asian-American students are because they tend to take more Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses and their families place a strong value on success in education. That’s a cultural difference that simply turning control of the schools over to the mayor is not going to solve.
How is Mayor Barrett going to change the culture in black central city homes as to education? With slogans and rhetoric? I want to hear this one. This is the adaptive change I talked about earlier. This is the hard part. Choosing the next superintendent is the easy part.
Talk more about the operational changes needed at MPS.
I’m talking about implementing meaningful instructional changes in schools and classrooms. How do we dramatically improve student achievement, increase school attendance and parental involvement, and raise reading, math and science scores? I haven’t heard the mayor call for the end to policies like social promotion, or push for year-round school for MPS or an immediate end to busing. Does he support closing failing schools, strengthening the curriculum, merit pay for teachers, expanding vouchers and making it easier to open charter schools? Will he insist that MPS be broken up into smaller districts?
Why wasn’t Barrett outspoken against Doyle’s removing of the QEO for teacher bargaining so he could keep costs under control. How is he going to keep it under control now? Or will he keep raising fees like he does now and say it’s for the kids? Does he favor ending residency for teachers to allow teachers from outside the district to apply for positions? How can we know if we have the best teachers for Milwaukee’s kids unless we expand the pool?
If we don’t fundamentally change the way schools operate it won’t matter whether the mayor or school board chooses the next superintendent. People have a right and a need to know before turning over another billion-dollar corporation to the mayor, where Barrett stands on these issues and how he’s going to make changes. Again, he hasn’t presented a plan other than to want to choose the next superintendent. Heck, that’s the easy part, the ribbon cutting part.
Q: The School Board has recently put forth a plan for reform. What are your thoughts on their proposals?
Are you kidding me? They have presided over this train wreck. MPS has been in decline for several decades and the school board has stood by with the proverbial deer in the headlights stare. They acted as if they were powerless to do anything about it and now they have ideas? Their constant internal bickering has allowed the status quo to remain. This is the group that in spite of things getting worse saw fit to retain Superintendent Andrekopoulos for as long as they did. Their thinking was for more consistency in the position. They got consistency all right, consistent underperformance. Corporate boards of directors would have asked any CEO reporting the kind of dismal data he did on reading achievement scores and graduation rates to resign. Instead the school board gave the CEO of MPS extensions on his contract and a raise. They didn’t want to hold him accountable for results. And now they have ideas?
Everybody seems to be in agreement that we need to do something with MPS. Do you agree?
No, I don’t and let me explain. We shouldn’t just do something, it’s more important to do something meaningful. Many elected officials who have been interviewed have in fact responded, “We have to do something!” Geez, what a brilliant statement. Just doing something can be dangerous if you have no idea what the end result will be. We’re only going to get one chance to get this right. If I break my leg obviously something has to be done. To treat my broken leg by removing my spleen is in fact doing something but it’s not meaningful. It was Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who said in helping “at least do no harm.” Oftentimes just doing something without first thinking it through can make it worse. That’s my fear here because the mayor has no plan and if he claims to have one he hasn’t communicated it to the rest of us.
You indicated earlier that you’re neutral on mayoral control. Why, and why are the advocates so optimistic about mayoral control?
I have my doubts as to whether the city of Milwaukee is equipped with the structure or leadership for mayoral control. What kind of restrictions or oversight will we have? That’s the thing that leads me to believe that the mayor and his committee have not researched this nor have they thought this through. If they had they would know how mayoral control is working out in other cities. It is not clear-cut that mayoral control has been the reason for what little progress has been made. In fact in some cities mayoral takeover has failed to make a difference. My advice is for proponents to curb their enthusiasm and examine the data.
The mayor believes this is making a difference in other cities. The empirical data says otherwise. Mayoral control of K-12 schools started up again in 1991, and so there exist fifteen years of data for us to analyze about the optimistic predictions of supporters and how successful this has been in raising academic excellence. I’m not saying that mayoral control is the wrong way to go, all I’m saying is that people smarter than me are raising questions about the effectiveness of national education reform efforts including mayoral control. It’s why I cringe when I hear people say, “We have to do something and I say no; we have to do something meaningful.” Let’s look before we leap.
Q: What does the data indicate?
Well, in Boston after ten years of mayoral control, student scores in the “needs improvement and warning/failure” category of standardized testing are twice as high as the statewide rate across all grades and the minority achievement gap still continues to widen. This is after ten-years! The story in Chicago is similar where after six years of incremental test score improvement under mayoral control, student achievement test scores began flattening with decline starting in 2001. In ten years only 42% of students scored at or above the national norms in standardized reading tests. This is only a 1% gain a year in ten years.
Mayor Barrett talks about the rise in reading scores and achievement gap improvement in New York public schools. He doesn’t tell you the entire story however, only that which fits his agenda. Here’s the rest of the story. Test scores are up. Which scores though? On state tests scores are up. New York schools however are being accused of dumbing down tests, making it easier to demonstrate “annual yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. How do we know? On the federal government’s gold standard test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), results of city schools have been flat in the seven years the mayor has had control. Scores on the SAT have declined in this time period and graduation rates have been inflated. Additionally three quarters of public school grads attending community college require remediation classes.
The average increase in school spending under Mayor Blumberg has increased to $21 million per year compared to $13 million before he took over. I don’t want MPS to look like New York Public schools, do you? Mayoral involvement hasn’t been a complete failure but is that improvement good enough? Not by my standards. Again it’s important for me to say that I’m not arguing against mayoral control; I just don’t have on rose-colored glasses when looking at the issue. I’m just citing the data.
Q: What’s the upside to a mayoral takeover?
I’ve taken an in-depth noncommittal look into the issue. First of all the growing popularity of mayoral control is nothing new. I found it interesting to learn that what led to independently elected school boards in the first place was corrupt use of mayoral power over education. It’s legitimate to ask if we are headed down that road again. The research says that mayoral control allows citizens to hold the chief executive of a city accountable for the school system’s result rather than the disparate collection of low profile school board members. The problem with this argument according to the same researchers is that most people do not base their vote for mayor solely on the performance of the school system. Voters tend to be more interested in how quickly potholes are filled, or about snow removal and garbage collection.
The second upside is that mayoral control produces a policy environment that is more conducive to dramatic reform. There is a difference however between quick reform and meaningful reform.
Q: What then are the downsides to abolishing elected school boards?
The researchers say this is where the racial divide occurs because abolishing school boards runs the risk of marginalizing communities that historically have less political clout. MPS is predominately attended by minority students. When community control is taken away through mayoral takeover, minorities begin to feel that the decision-making authority affects them the most. Mayoral takeover also shuts off a pipeline that historically has proven to be a vital means for minority citizens to enter public office. I read where 22% of black and 35% of all Latino elected officials nationally are school board members. This is why we’re getting resistance from black residents about this move. They feel they’re being squeezed out of the political process.
There is no way Barrett or Doyle gave this consideration and it’s why again I say they didn’t think this through. If they want to claim they considered this, then shame on them. I don’t call these issues racist like School Board President Michael Bonds did, but it is insensitive if they did give this consideration. Bonds lashed out and reached for the word that blacks know will get people’s attention, the “R” word. It was irresponsible though.
Q: What are the other issues across all demographics for abolishing the school board?
Researchers say that the school board remains a substantive venue for parents to have their voices heard. Trying to get through all the clutter at city hall is difficult. The average person can’t get the mayor on the phone directly whereas they usually can reach their school board representative directly. Additionally, a local board is the only mechanism that provides a direct point of entry for parents to express their concerns about education to the very officials who make education policy, in other words more community control.
Researchers also believe that school boards divided into sub-districts instead of the whole city have members that are more likely to understand how citizen issues and concerns with a particular school varies across neighborhoods, allowing board members to adopt nuanced policies that reflect district by district variation. The last two points are that mayors are inclined to push sweeping policy changes that take little account of vastly different needs across schools, a one-size-fits-all approach. I talked about the potential for corruption and the thought here too is that the wrong mayor may be tempted to politicize the schools in self-serving ways.
Q: Are you confident that in the end they’ll get this right?
We have to. I’m out of jail space.