Not long ago, the idea of placing the Milwaukee Public Schools under control of the city’s mayor was getting considerable discussion. Then two things happened. The Public Policy Forum did a study of other cities, which found no clear-cut answers as to whether a governance change improved their school districts.
The Forum also convened a panel of community leaders to discuss this, and the feeling was unanimous that this would make no difference to the success of MPS. From teachers union head Dennis Oulahan to business leader Tim Sheehy, there was not “a great deal of support for a change in governance,” moderator Mike Gousha concluded.
That seems to have killed the idea. After all, if the experts agree it wouldn’t do anything, and the study is equivocal, it must be a bad idea, right?
Wrong. The idea has great merit, and nothing in the study – or the statements of experts – proves otherwise. A system in which, say, the mayor appoints the school board members, much as he appoints the Fire and Police Commission, could have many benefits, including:
More attention to the problem: School Board members are elected in low-turnout elections in which a minuscule percentage of city residents vote. Mayoral elections are high-interest affairs that would automatically elevate the issue of education, while making the city’s most important officeholder accountable for the schools. We vote for the mayor based on how he does on property taxes and crime, but not on education, which is just as important to the city’s success. Why put so little value on the schools?
A less parochial school board. The teachers union routinely gets candidates elected who readily vote for increases in salaries and benefits. The typical opponent of the union is the business community. The board has swung back and forth between these interests, as their respective candidates get elected. By contrast, the mayor is answerable to the full spectrum of voters. His choices for the board are likely to be more independent.