OP ED: Politician-made perfect storm could damage our kids’ schools

This is being reprinted with permission from Save Our Schools Wauwatosa. It originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and OnMilwaukee.com and was written by Mary Young. Most of you know how I feel about public schools and I think this bears reprinting here:

There’s a perfect storm heading toward our kids’ Wisconsin public schools. If nothing is done, the damage will be widespread. For most urban and suburban kids, there may be no shelter to hide. The damage done would be 100% man-made by Madison politicians. Let me share three reasons why I’m so worried, why you should be, too, and what we can do about it.

State revenue is down, way down:Wisconsin’s budget already is under water. Gov. Scott Walker has already delayed $101 million in debt payments. And according to the Wisconsin Budget Project, state revenue — which funds our kids’ public schools, among other priorities — is $90 million below projections as of May 2016. Despite low unemployment, the state isn’t seeing increased tax revenues. Why? WBP speculates that either the jobs numbers being touted are wrong or “the jobs being added are low-wage and not adding much to income taxes.”

If we don’t have revenue, we can’t support our kids’ K-12 schools. Without correction, the storm’s floodwaters will deepen our state’s already-underwater budget.

The floodwater looms despite repeated promises from state Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield, who infamously predicted in 2014 that the state’s tax cuts would beam sunshine on the economy and drive new revenue to fund schools. Those blue skies never came.

A year later, in a room filled with concerned public school parents, including me, Kooyenga again predicted that tax cuts would create plenty of revenue, bring budgets above water and fully fund our kids’ K-12 schools. Again, those blue skies didn’t come.

We nonpartisan suburban public school parents aren’t ideological advocates for either tax cuts or tax increases. But we do believe in sound budgeting. We do it all the time — and we put our kids’ needs first. If a politician looks parents in the eye and says, “Believe me, there will be blue skies over your child’s school,” and then deeper darkness arrives — twice — that politician should apologize and work to right his wrongs.

Politicians such as Kooyenga inevitably will leave citizens to fight over the life rafts. They’ll say there’s not enough resources to help protect all Wisconsinites from the storm. We can’t have schools, roads and care for seniors, they’ll say. But we have news for the politicians. We parents will not be lured into a false fight with our friends. We will stand together and question politicians who appear unable to manage our state’s finances and keep our state’s priorities afloat.

School boards can’t fully fund schools: Legislation currently prevents locally elected school boards from levying enough property tax revenue to adequately support our kids’ schools. A revenue cap — set by politicians — regulates how much revenue Wisconsin’s school boards can raise.

When the storm hits, budget floodwaters deepen, and our kids’ schools are cut or closed. Surprised parents may turn to their school boards for support. However, these local officials are currently forbidden by the state to offer shelter from the storm.

One simple solution would be to raise the revenue cap, enabling locally elected school boards to raise enough revenue to protect their schools. For so many reasons, it can and it must be done.

Expanded private school vouchers: Every dollar we spend on private school vouchers is a dollar that no longer supports our kids’ public schools. And over the next decade, the state will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on this program that — despite 25 years of trying — hasn’t improved education in Wisconsin one iota by any meaningful measure. One simple solution is for Madison politicians to stop the expansion of private school vouchers until Wisconsin’s budget isn’t under water.

Man-made storm clouds are heading towards our kids’ schools — but the good news is that there are solutions. We need leadership from politicians such as Kooyenga if we’re going to keep our kids’ public schools safe from the storm.

Mary Young of Wauwatosa is president of Support Our Schools Wauwatosa.

Drinking and legislating might not mix…

After a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the state Capitol yesterday, lawmakers from both parties decided to have an impromptu “beer summit” at The Coopers Tavern, a bar across the street from the Capitol. Among those lawmakers who were a part of the summit was Republican State Rep. Dale Kooyenga.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Reps. Cory Mason, D-Racine, Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, Daniel Riemer, D-Milwaukee, Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, John Jagler, R-Watertown, and David Murphy, R-Greenville, gathered around tables on the tavern patio. Some sipped beers, while others had sodas and waters.

The “beer summit” ended once lawmakers were allowed back in the Capitol, and once back on the floor of the Asssembly Rep. Kooyenga had a few things to say.

Now I don’t know for sure whether Rep. Kooyenga tipped a few adult beverages back at the bipartisan “beer summit” or not, but it certainly seemed that way to me.

Kooyenga and Darling’s plan to kill the Milwaukee Public Schools

It’s out there now, the Republican plan (pdf) to start peeling off Milwaukee Public Schools and handing them over to private operators. And it’s awful.

Sponsored by suburban Republicans Rep. Dale Kooyega and Sen. Alberta Darling, it is full of bad ideas and presents a possible future for MPS that is bleaker than you can possibly imagine. It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start at the beginning.

In January, Kooyenga and Darling released a shiny booklet (pdf) about their plan, called “New Opportunities for Milwaukee.” The book opened with an outright lie, claiming in its opening paragraph that the “War on Poverty” launched by President Johnson in 1964 resulted in “little, if any, progress,” in their words.

A careful study by Columbia University released last year showed that government progams, even though they are constantly under attack by Kooyenga and Darling’s Republican colleagues, “are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%).” They’re just wrong, and it’s hard to take seriously any plan that is premised on a falsehood that bold.

The “new opportunities” that followed in their book represented not opportunities for Milwaukeeans, but rather opportunities for private charter school organizations, anti-union out-of-state corporations, and interior designers. (You think I am joking; I am not.)

So now the suburban pair is circulating a set of “talking points” before releasing the full bill that would implement their schools plan, and it, too, begins with a lie. They write, “The consequences of these failing schools are a significant factor in contributing to Milwaukee’s declining economic and social health.”

It may be difficult to quantitatively measure whatever it is they call the city’s “social health,” and it’s probably equally difficult to prove or disprove the causal relationship between our public schools—several of which are consistently rated among the best in the state—and any specific economic measures. In fact, the research usually suggests that it’s neighborhood quality that has a long-term effect on school achievement, not school achievement affecting neighborhood quality.

But there are pretty clear data out there on Milwaukee’s economy, and it is not, in fact, “declining.” While this city is far from perfect—no one is making that argument, and this city has repeatedly been singled out as among the nation’s worst for African Americans, something city legislators have been talking about for years—the city of Milwaukee is in a period of growth and revitalization.

Milwaukee is growing in population—indeed, downtown, the Third Ward, and Bay View are booming—and in employment, with a recent City Observatory report noting that Milwaukee’s jobs grew faster than those of its suburbs. The city is reclaiming its dead housing stock and revitalizing many neighborhoods in all parts of the city. Private and public investments in infrastructure and construction are literally remaking vast swaths of the city, from Century City to the Menominee Valley to the lakefront.

So, twice the Kooyenga-Darling duo have introduced their plans with questionable, if not completely bogus, premises. It should come as no surprise, then, that the bill itself is full of questionable, if not completely bogus, solutions to the problems facing Milwaukee’s failing schools.

For one, the plan places authority over these schools, dubbed “opportunity schools,” in a single commissioner, appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Theoretically, Abele could provide some oversight of that person, and to a certain extent that commissioner will have to follow state and federal laws.

But unlike in MPS, there is no democratically-elected governance board; the proposal does not allow the elected Milwaukee County Board any oversight, despite putting the commissioner directly under the county executive (who is elected only once every four years; there are school board—and county board—elections every two years). All power to evaluate and close failing MPS schools lies with this one individual, as does the power to authorize, fund, and monitor the success or failure of these new opportunity schools.

Let me repeat part of that again: A single, unelected, unknown “commissioner” will absolutely have the authority to close public schools operated by the democratically-elected Milwaukee Board of School Directors, confiscate the buildings, material, and students (maybe? see below) within those schools, and turn them over to private, possibly religious, possibly for-profit operators.

The proposal suggests in at least two ways that the problem with failing schools is teachers, though thinking only about teachers is stupidly reductive. Any staff in the schools selected to be closed and handed off can reapply for their jobs, but they have to sign a contract that they will not seek representation by a union. Teachers unions, of course, had their authority gutted by 2011’s Act 10, so I am unsure why Kooyenga and Darling fear unions in their “opportunity schools.”

They also seem to fear fully licensed teachers. The plan allows the commissioner to grant licenses to whoever wants one to teach in these schools. Let’s be clear: the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction makes no provision for such a thing to happen. The federal law governing schools makes no provision for such a thing to happen.

There are well-established emergency licenses and even alternative certification programs available, sure. But this power, residing in a single individual with, potentially, no expertise or qualification in education, to unilaterally grant licenses to any random person is unprecedented. A quick googling turns up no other program anywhere in the country—even in the “recovery zones” in New Orleans or Detroit on which this program is modeled—that allows a commissioner like this one to license teachers on his own.

And, really, does anyone believe that the problem in these schools is that the teachers there are licensed and represented by the union? If that is the problem, then why are the top schools in the state full of licensed, qualified teachers? Would Kooyenga and Darling have the nerve to walk into MPS’s Reagan or Fernwood Montessori, or for that matter, Brookfield East or Maple Dale in their home districts, and demand they discharge all the licensed teachers in their employ? Of course not.

The plan also makes no mention of students. At this moment, there are five different education sectors in Milwaukee. Students can and do move freely within and among those sectors. The failing students—for, after all, when we talk about failing schools we’re talking about students with poor outcomes in those schools—from the schools targeted for closure by this commissioner are not, as far as I can tell, required to remain in those schools. If I were a cynical man, I’d worry that without safeguards, the operators of these schools, once they’re converted to “opportunity schools,” will summarily remove students who misbehave or create other challenges, filling empty seats with highly motivated students instead of actually dealing with the problems among Milwaukee’s hardest-to-teach students.

Brother Bob Smith, former longtime leader of the Messmer schools in the city’s voucher program, used to say, famously, “Make the right decisions, or make them somewhere else.” Students who cannot be served by choice schools, because of disabilities, for example, must be taken in by MPS. And we know from years of research that voucher schools churn tremendously. The last study found that fully 75% of students who started ninth grade in a voucher school dropped out of the program before graduation. Many city charters, too, suffer from high student turnover or expulsions.

While I’m sure most educators in all sectors—and I’ve met a lot of them!—are in this business for the kids, the data are undeniable: Milwaukee’s children switch schools far too often, and leave the non-MPS sector schools at an alarming rate.

And now Kooyenga and Darling want to hand public school buildings over to these voucher sector and the charter sector, operators who will have no attachment to the students, parents, or communities in and around those schools, and who will seek the easiest path to high scores—enrolling only the best students.

The Milwaukee Public Schools has no ability to pick choose, to tell students to make their decisions somewhere else. Students who leave voucher schools, charter schools, and, soon, these “opportunity schools,” by choice or by force, will be taken in by MPS.

The logical end of this plan, then, which carves out five schools a year from the public district, is that MPS will have only those students whom other sectors will not teach, cannot teach, refuse to teach. As more and more public schools are handed over to a one-man “opportunity schools” commissioner, and as the budget for the public schools shrinks to nothing and the cost of educating special needs students rises, bankruptcy is inevitable. The district is already supporting retirees from when it enrolled 100,000 students or more; when it enrolls half that, or less, it will simply be unsustainable.

And then what will be the “opportunity” for those students only MPS will teach?

Answer that, Kooyenga and Darling.

Suburban Republican legislators Dale Kooyenga & Alberta Darling think they know how to fix Milwaukee!

Apparently Republican State Rep. Dale Kooyenga of upper class Brookfield and Republican State Sen. Alberta Darling of filthy rich River Hills think they know just how to fix poverty in the City of Milwaukee. Rep. Kooyenga and Sen. Darling, who’s famous for privatizing the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare and making it worse than it was when Milwaukee County ran it, seem to think that weakening unions and closing public schools so less accountable charter schools can open up is the way to combat poverty in Milwaukee.

Here are some highlights of the legislation proposed by Rep. Kooyenga and Sen. Darling, as outlined by Jason Stein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

■ Eliminate the corporate income tax for companies locating in needy urban zones. The tax cut would apply only if the business is from an industry not already represented in Wisconsin by existing companies, such as auto manufacturing.

■ Establish zones in which labor unions and private employers would not be able to reach agreements that require workers to pay union dues. Some Republicans are already pushing to make this so-called “right-to-work” approach the law statewide.

Opponents of the proposal question whether the state would have the authority under federal law to implement right-to-work in some parts of Wisconsin but not others.

■ Eliminate in those zones the so-called “minimum markup” law, which prevents retailers from selling their products at a loss. The markup requirement would still apply to fuel sales.

■ Allow the formation of for-profit limited liability companies that could operate more like nonprofits. The companies would not be tax-exempt, but they would not be obliged to pursue only profits for their shareholders, leaving them more legal flexibility to work on behalf of their communities.

Other education proposals from Darling and Kooyenga include:

■ Streamlining the process for allowing high-performing charter schools to open additional schools.

Allowing high-performing charter schools run by MPS or non-MPS entities to automatically add new schools without official approval, if their students’ average reading and math test score results beat the district average for two years in a row.

■ Convert the approximately $40 million MPS receives each year for school integration efforts within the system to a block grant with no state mandates.

Among the more ridiculous poverty-combating proposals put forth by Rep. Kooyenga and Sen. Darling is a reform that would eliminate licensure requirements for African hair braiding.

As Stein’s article notes, it doesn’t appear Rep. Kooyenga or Sen. Darling reached out to any of the members of Milwaukee’s legislative delegation to seek their input, because the two suburban Republicans clearly know how best to combat poverty in a community they don’t actually live in or represent.

If you’d like to read the Kooyenga-Darling plan for yourselves, here you go:

The Darling-Kooyenga Plan For Combating Poverty in Milwaukee

I am not an economist, but even I know that supply side economics is a crock.

It’s nothing but magical thinking…no better than “if you build it, they will come”. It is not the “rising tide that lifts all boats” that Jack Kemp, one of the earliest advocates of enterprise zones, promised when he introduced the use of tax cuts to stimulate economic growth in certain areas. Thirty-five years later, this newest plan set forth by Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Alberta Darling to create enterprise zones in poverty stricken urban areas (you know they mean Milwaukee, right?) is further proof of the ineffectiveness of the concept. The plan includes eliminating corporate income taxes for new “industry”, ending minimum mark-up, and preventing unionization of the workforce. I can’t begin to comprehend how these so-called incentives would infuse cash into the surrounding community, thereby lifting the residents out of poverty. It’s just more of the same failed policies. If folks can’t get a good paying job, they can’t spend any money. If there’s no money to spend….the whole thing doesn’t work.

Seeing as poverty is the number one reason for poor performance in school, their companion proposal to implement recovery zone policies for the same areas is even more insulting. The only way to combat poverty is to guarantee a minimum level of food, shelter and medical care…Medicare and Social Security have proven to be the most effective programs to combat poverty ever implemented in the US.

Wisconsin needs to demand better from our legislature (and our Governor) than these old, tired ideas.