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Obama's subtle message spoke volumes about Milwaukee schools

Think about how it looks when the most powerful African-American of all time throws his support behind a local proposal that faces a real possibility of being blocked by opposition among African-Americans in Milwaukee.

by Alan J. Borsuk |

The only way President Barack Obama could have been any more indirect about his message on Wednesday in a speech at a middle school in Madison was by giving it in another state.

He never mentioned Milwaukee, he barely mentioned Wisconsin. It might seem hard to be boring when you're talking about giving away billions of dollars to places that shake up their education systems, but Obama succeeded, so much so that a Washington Post story described his speech as "turgid."

And yet, there was a very pointed message in there, aimed right at Wisconsin and Milwaukee. How do I know? Arne Duncan told me so.

Being president may mean rarely being able to say what's really on your mind, but, in a telephone interview after the speech, the outspoken secretary of education was more than willing to tread almost all the places his boss didn't want to go.

In short, the message of the visit was: Get with the program, Wisconsin.

Duncan said Obama's visit was intended to give support to the package of education proposals being pushed by Gov. Jim Doyle. Duncan praised Doyle as courageous, said the Legislature would be taking historic action if it approved Doyle's proposals and said Wisconsin has "an opportunity to break through." Which would mean breaking through from the back of the pack when it comes not only to meeting the specifics, but perhaps even more so, getting into the no-excuses state of mind Obama and Duncan want to see.

Remember when Duncan visited Bay View High School in May? He held a closed-door meeting with a group of politicians, school officials, teachers union leaders and others. Some who were present said he started out by asking how often everyone in the room got together to talk about education, and Doyle joked that they did it whenever the secretary of education asked them to.

Guess what--Duncan didn't think that was funny. He brought it up in the conversation Wednesday and said he thought that the answer pointed to one of the reasons Milwaukee was doing worse than many other urban centers when it comes to education trends.

Getting everyone from every sector of the community united, energized and working together is a key to change, Duncan said.

"It appeared that kind of collaboration, that kind of dialogue, simply wasn't happening" in Milwaukee, Duncan said. "Unfortunately, when that happens, children lose."

As he did in an interview in May, Duncan made it clear how he views what he called the "deeply troubling" situation in Milwaukee.

"Milwaukee has to get dramatically better," he said. "The status quo is unacceptable. .â.â.â Milwaukee is one of the few cities in the country where the achievement gap (between white children and black children) is actually getting wider."

"The whole city needs to rally," Duncan said. "This has to be all hands on deck. There has to be a sense of urgency there."

Duncan said important keys that will lead to improvement lie in Doyle's proposals, some of which are sailing through the Legislature and some of which aren't. They include lifting a state ban on using student data to evaluate teachers, strengthening the power of the state superintendent of public instruction to take action against weak schools and using student data better in guiding education from kindergarten through college.

What about giving Milwaukee's mayor the power to pick a school superintendent and shape spending decisions on schools? It's the one issue where Duncan didn't give a direct answer. But he has said publicly that one of the main measures of his success as secretary will be whether more cities adopt mayoral control of schools. His support of the idea is no secret.

Several weeks ago, prospects for the mayoral control idea backed by Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett were looking poor. Opponents were more active and organized and appeared to have enough powerful tools to stop the idea.

Now, with the expectation that a special legislative session will bring the idea to a head before Thanksgiving, supporters have scored enough points to leave the outcome uncertain.

However perfunctory his speech was, Obama's visit, coming at this specific time and with the specific focus on education, sent a strong message of his support for what Doyle wants. Think about how it looks when the most powerful African-American of all time throws his support behind a local proposal that faces a real possibility of being blocked by opposition among African-Americans in Milwaukee.

A development of major importance came when Doyle appeared at a Milwaukee news conference Oct. 27 to unveil a plan that would keep an elected school board, but give it very limited powers. It wasn't just the proposal - it was who joined him. The fact that state Sen. Lena Taylor and state Reps. Pedro Colón and Jason Fields have become deeply involved in crafting the plan and trying to win support for it changes the political dynamics of the issue. Taylor and Fields are African-American. Colón is Hispanic. United opposition by minority legislators from Milwaukee would probably be fatal to mayoral control. But even a split creates a much different picture.

Taylor says she is tired of Milwaukee being, as she puts it, "the weakest link" in America's educational chain. Recent data adds to accumulated evidence that the gap between white and black students is greater in Wisconsin than anywhere else in the U.S. Fields said one thing that bothers him greatly is that scores on national tests, in some instances, put Wisconsin at the bottom of the list even if you stick only to scores of black students in each state.

Some legislators who favor mayoral control admitted they were a bit disappointed that Obama didn't directly address Milwaukee and Wisconsin matters in his speech.

Not Taylor. As she left the school gym where the president spoke, she said, "There were two words I clung on to - 'transform' and 'remake.' .â.â.â I feel like I'm under the charge of the president now."

Her words would sound like music to Duncan, and, presumably, Obama.

A veteran education reporter, Alan J. Borsuk is a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. He can be reached at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.

— Alan J. Borsuk
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel


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