Candidates agree education is at crossroads

Madison School Board candidates Juan Jose Lopez and Lucy Mathiak look at what is happening in schools here in very different ways, but on at least one issue they are in complete agreement: Public education here and throughout the Badger State is at a critical crossroads.
But the two candidates vying for School Board Seat No. 2, which Lopez has held since 1994, have quite distinct notions about the nature of the challenges facing the Madison Metropolitan School District.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, March 21, 2006

For Lopez, the major issue threatening the district is a dozen years of strict state-imposed spending controls that have hobbled public education. He says the financial situation jeopardizes educational progress and puts at risk Madison’s reputation for academic excellence. Lopez said continuing budget cuts put the district “on the verge of severely cutting our basic instructional program.”
Lopez takes personal pride in the district and its successes in raising minority achievement scores and graduation rates while continuing to turn out an enviable number of high-achieving National Merit Scholars and semifinalists – and this at a time when there has been a historic influx of low-income students.
For Mathiak, the biggest issue is not lack of money, but what she sees as lack of public trust in the School Board and the administration. She sees a multitude of missed opportunities and a board and a district that are fractured and not willing to look seriously at its very real challenges.
“The last election and failed referenda (to build a new school at Leopold Elementary and override revenue caps to fund the district’s operating budget) spoke volumes,” Mathiak said. “This city is blessed with smart, engaged parents and a community that is generally supportive of public education. I think people are loyal to their schools and teachers, and many of their principals, as well. But I believe they are not satisfied with the board.”
Certainly she is not. Mathiak has been involved with Madison schools in various volunteer capacities since her children were in elementary school. But she says she became particularly frustrated with the board when she served on the district’s Long Range Planning Committee in 2004 and 2005.
“I saw the good, the bad and the ugly,” she observed. She said that the functional work of the committee was hindered by board members who attended the meetings and often gave long, rambling speeches that seemed designed to praise each other, but with precious little result.
“At the end of many meetings, there was no movement, no decisions made, no votes taken,” she said.
She contrasted that with committees she has seen where parents and citizens drive the process.
“When we seriously ask for advice on these school-related issues from the parents, citizens and school staff who are on the front lines, they do a great job, like the work that came out of the East and West-Memorial boundary task force groups,” she said.
Lopez is known as one of those board members given to a certain amount of speech-making and Mathiak does not mince words. She made a deliberate decision to challenge him rather than compete for the other seat on the ballot this year, from which the incumbent, Bill Keys, is retiring.
“Juan goes to a lot of meetings in the community and he is a nice guy but a board member needs to deliver,” she said.
She noted that the performance and achievement committee Lopez chaired last year met only sporadically and had little substantive to show despite concerns on issues like the minority achievement gap and 4-year-old kindergarten.
Lopez focuses less on the process and more on the district’s success stories.
“I’m not sure that many people in Madison actually recognize how different our student population is today from where it was even five or 10 years ago,” he said.
He observed that there are new immigrants from all over the world that are coming to Madison to find good jobs, to start businesses and to have the opportunity to give their children an excellent public school education.
The result of this influx, and other demographic shifts in Madison’s population, means that there are now many Madison schools with 40 or 50 percent of their students coming from low income families.
Despite those changes, and fierce budget cutting, the district is somehow succeeding to stay afloat and even make progress, Lopez said, making it a beacon of hope among urban school districts.
Lopez, who grew up and went to school in a segregated district in San Antonio, Texas, takes some of the credit for educational improvements over the last decade. Noting that he “led the charge” in creating the very successful Spanish immersion school, Nuestro Mundo, housed within Frank Allis Elementary School, Lopez also has been a strong advocate for programs the district has put in place to help minority and low-income students.
In a recent speech prepared for a community forum, he noted that shortly after he was elected, he and several other board members began to focus intensely on students who were failing.
“Our task was to lift them up, while maintaining our exceptionally high standards for middle class kids,” he wrote.
The results, he says, speak for themselves, including distinctly improved numbers in three critical areas: percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level (almost doubled since 1998), the percentage of ninth-graders who complete algebra and in the percentage of students graduating from high school.
These hard-won but potentially fragile achievements, he says, come in the face of budget cuts that will require nearly $8 million to be carved out of the current school budget.
Jeff Henriques, a Mathiak supporter and senior lecturer in the UW’s psychology department whose sons attend West and Hamilton, said he believes Mathiak’s tough approach and long history of activism on behalf of both gifted and minority students will benefit both of those groups, and every other student, as well.
“The role of high standards for all students is something that Lucy will bring to the School Board. She’s a straight talker,” Henriques said.
Mathiak’s older son is African-American and she expresses frustration with what she sees as low expectations from some in the district.
“How is it that this diverse School Board has yet to take up some key issues that parents of minority students are concerned about?” she asked.
These include racial profiling and disparate discipline policies, equity issues in the schools, how increasingly scarce resources are being allocated and how some counselors and staff in the district are not placing high expectations on minority students.
These and a host of other broad, substantive conversations on subjects like curriculum, budget, process or contracts, sometimes appear to be off limits for serious consideration, Mathiak says.
“The discussions one would hope to be having aren’t taking place, and those that are – like the animals in the classroom debate, for example – are sucking up hours of board time.”
Curriculum: Teaching methodology sounds as dry as dust. But for parents who are seeing their children thrive or struggle with a particular learning program in subjects like reading or math, the issues surrounding curriculum are just about enough to make people put their homes up for sale and move in, or out, of a school district.
Lopez is well aware how passionately people feel.
“When we implement a new program, I look at it from a learning perspective. I want kids to learn academically, and I want them to learn socially,” he said. He has been a key advocate for Nuestro Mundo, the language immersion school that has parents eagerly signing up for a waiting list.
He also supports new programs like the highly controversial core English programs at West High School that have eliminated ninth- and 10th-grade English electives in favor of classrooms where students of all abilities study a subject together, but with some individualized attention.
“I hate to see students segregated, and I think these classes help bring different kinds of kids together,” he noted. The purpose of what’s known as the heterogeneous classroom is to reduce the gap between high- and low-achieving students. Mathiak opposes the move toward this type of instruction. She explains that the needs of her own boys would make it unlikely that they would be well-served in the same classroom.
“It’s scary to see West disemboweling its previously excellent English curriculum for some poorly articulated goals regarding achievement,” Mathiak said. She noted that she believes curriculum issues must be discussed, and that data supporting these changes need must come from a source without a vested interested in the results.
Her willingness to focus on curriculum issues is not likely to win her a popularity contest with the district’s administration, or with a majority of the current School Board.
School Board politics: As any observer of the School Board over the last several years cannot fail to see, there is often a sharp and occasionally acrimonious split between two factions. There are plenty of unanimous votes, and some realignments on random topics. But on many significant issues the Board votes 5-2, with the majority including Lopez, Board President Carol Carstensen, retiring incumbent Bill Keyes, Vice President Johnny Winston Jr. and Secretary Shwaw Vang. All have endorsed Lopez. Meanwhile, the usual dissenting voices from the board majority are Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza, and both are supporting Mathiak.
The “negativity” of the critics of the Board and the district has become an issue in both this School Board race and the race between Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira for Seat 1. Supporters of the status quo charge that critics are a destructive and impossible to please; a small, cranky faction that has stirred up public dissatisfaction when they challenge the board majority, the budget process, general decision making, the superintendent, the teacher’s union and the administration.
“God help us in a democracy if you can’t ask questions,” Mathiak responded. “I was raised to question authority, and I believe that’s called critical thinking. We need to ask about the data that is supporting policy decisions and whether it makes sense. It’s not critical or negative to expect people to bring solid, objective support for their ideas. It’s part of the ‘sifting and winnowing’ tradition.”
As for Lopez, he said he believes he can get along with anyone.
“I respect the people I don’t agree with, and I respect the fraternity of the School Board and all its members.” He also noted that it is the role of the challenger to criticize the status quo.