Reporter’s Notebook: Richard Mial: Milwaukee school problems do affect us

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Dec 15, 2009 No Comments ›› admin

La Crosse Tribune – December 15, 2009

..The governor’s race for 2010 is shaping up to be a battle of the Milwaukee leaders.

And one of the issues could be what to do about Milwaukee Public Schools.

If you think that doesn’t matter to us in La Crosse, guess again.

There’s no way the abysmal performance of Wisconsin’s largest school district can’t have an economic impact on the rest of the state.

Barrett and Doyle say more than 70 percent of MPS’s 10th-graders are not proficient in math and 60 percent are not proficient in reading.

Of those MPS students who go on to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, more than 80 percent require remedial studies.

That kind of record hurts the economic performance of the Milwaukee area and consigns people to a life of poverty. When that happens in a state’s largest city, it’s going to have an effect statewide.

But if you still wonder why you should care, consider this: State taxpayers pay 80 percent of the cost of MPS.

Republican Scott Walker of Wauwatosa is Milwaukee County executive. Democrat Tom Barrett is mayor of Milwaukee.

Both are frontrunners in the race, and they disagree on how to handle Milwaukee’s schools.

Barrett and fellow Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle, both want to see a “mayoral takeover” of MPS. That means the Milwaukee mayor, rather than the school board, would appoint the superintendent and take a close hand in school affairs.

Walker would break up the 85,000-student district into seven smaller ones. And he would take the limit off the private “choice” schools, now at 20,000 students.

Mayoral takeover has had positive results in Chicago, Boston and New York City.

But Walker isn’t convinced Barrett is a strong enough mayor to handle the schools. And he wonders what would happen as the race for governor takes up more of Barrett’s time.

Barrett contends the current system, with a divided board and seven school superintendents in the past 10 years, doesn’t carry enough accountability.

“The MPS board and superintendent can point fingers at each other or among board members when initiatives are not implemented or difficult decisions are pushed into the future,” Barrett said on a mayoral Web site. “No sustainable governing coalition – and no sustained commitment to change – can be maintained under the current system.”

I’m a product of Milwaukee Public Schools – a 1967 graduate of Washington High School. But Milwaukee is a far different city, and the school district bears little relationship to the one I knew.

I left Milwaukee in 1972 and don’t get back there much.

But I know the state can’t really prosper if its major city is a dysfunctional wreck.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, an Alma Democrat, also recognizes the danger of students failing in Wisconsin’s largest city.

“We know an educated work force is a top priority for economic growth,” she wrote in her newspaper column this week. “Wisconsin’s overall economic success depends heavily on the educational achievement of every school district. And when kids miss out on a good education, we all pay for failure. We pay the costs associated with poverty and crime.”

We constantly hear how much better Minnesota is doing economically compared with Wisconsin. And the difference is in the states’ major metro areas.

Milwaukee struggles while the Twin Cities booms. That’s pretty much the story.

Think about that during the upcoming race for governor.

By Richard Mial

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