Blaming Barrett for School Failure
A current TV attack ad blames Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for the abysmally low graduation rate of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS): about half of all ninth-grade students ever graduate from high school. But is this fair?
MPS, like every other school district in Wisconsin, is governed by an elected School Board. In 2009 Mayor Barrett made a major effort to take over the selection of Board members and the Superintendent; despite support from then-Governor Jim Doyle, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the effort fizzled in the Legislature. The only legal role for the Mayor in operation of MPS is to sign the annual tax levy bill, which includes the tax levied by the Board of School Directors. Either the makers of the ad either do not know that Mayor Barrett has no responsibility for the operation of MPS, or they think that most voters don't know that. But if Barrett is not responsible for the low graduation rate, who is?
Conservatives often blame the job-security provisions of public teacher union contracts for the persistence of incompetent teachers in many schools. Unless a teacher breaks a law (like fondling a student), it is very difficult to fire a teacher after the first three years on the job. (Similar seniority and job-security rules protect incompetents in the civil service, police and the military.) On the other hand, the improved pay and benefits that collective bargaining has won for school teachers over the past few decades have also made teaching in public schools a more attractive career than it would be otherwise, especially in large urban school systems like Milwaukee. In no other occupation that requires a college degree (plus a boat-load of education courses) are people expected to control and educate large numbers of recalcitrant and often violent youngsters. Without the generous pay and benefits, including job-security rules, the only people teaching would be those who had no chance of getting any other job at all.
The reduction in state aid to school districts, coupled with elimination of collective bargaining rights, makes teaching school less appealing today than just a year or two ago. But the current lousy job market keeps many teachers on the job for now. My guess is that if and when the economy improves enough, many of the more capable teachers (especially those with marketable degrees with math, science and economics majors) will leave for private-sector jobs.
The inconvenient truth is that most of Milwaukee public school pupils have been raised in poor, dysfunctional homes, in which education is not valued. That is why so many do not take school seriously, and by high school they lack the skills to succeed there. They get frustrated and drop out. Political ads do not mention this because it cannot be blamed on any party, union or public official.
Gerald S Glazer