By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 17, 2016 at 8:46 PM

Early on in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion about public education, Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University as well as the event’s moderator, noted that, "This is not a debate; this is a dialogue, a conversation."

For the most part, however, the following 60 minutes between State Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association executive director Lauren Baker sure resembled a debate ­– a politely testy one, occasionally drawing brief vocal reactions from parts of the sold-out crowd gathered in MU’s Eckstein Hall.

Due to Borsuk’s insistence on a discussion rather than a debate, the participants’ opening statements were reformed into an opening question from the moderator: What do you hope or what do you think should happen in the next five years to improve the overall situation for Milwaukee school children? Kooyenga began declaring two main objectives for Milwaukee public education, arguing that "we all need to be open to change" and that "the current rhetoric is not working.

"The dialogue on both sides is not conducive to what’s really going to make the most change in our community," he said. "It’s not going to be public policy. What’s going to make the most change in our community is recruiting the best and brightest teachers from around the world and bringing them here to Milwaukee to improve our educational situation."

For her introductory remarks, Baker – standing in at the last minute for MTEA president Kim Schroeder, who had to drop out of the event due to illness – decried being "in a place in education in our community where there are a tremendous amount of injustices being perpetrated on our children" and 25 years of "an experiment on the children of Milwaukee.

"I hope that what we come out of today with is a vision for the kinds of schools we want our children to be in, and that that vision really encompasses the kind of learning that we want to see in our schools, the kind of environment we want our children to be in in that learning, the kind of resources we want wrapped around those schools and the kind of governance that makes that happen," Baker said. "I believe that model exists in community schools."

Before moving into the main questions, Baker also added that she already took exception to one of Kooyenga’s points, noting, "I do believe that this is a debate about policy." And with that, the conversation went into the topic of money – and whether there is enough in the system. Kooyenga deflected Borsuk’s question, noting, "We shouldn’t talk about the inputs; we should talk about the outputs," and arguing that, by several metrics, education was better in 2016 than in 2011.

"We need to have a student-centered approach – not a district-centered approach, not a school-centered approach, not an adult-centered approach, but a student-centered approach to how we fund education," he added.

Baker, using the revenue limit, countered with the worth of students in Milwaukee Public Schools against other schools. When Kooyenga asked if she would then support raising the charter and choice amounts to make sure it was the same as MPS as well, Baker retorted that, "I want to have that conversation when you can tell me that all of those schools will obey the open rules and open records laws in Wisconsin … that I know the accountability standards are the same as they are for all the public schools … and that I know that there are highly qualified professional educators in front of those students.

"If I’m going to send public dollars to a private organization, then I need to know that I can have public scrutiny of those dollars," she later added.

With that, accountability for public schools and charter schools quickly evolved into the next point of contention during the conversation. Baker opposed Kooyenga’s notion that 20 percent of charter schools failed, citing a report instead saying actually 41 percent of the schools had failed – not including ones with low enrollment or scores – and rattling off particular schools as examples.

When Kooyenga then asked about accountability for public schools, as well, Baker countered with the ways in which MPS are measured. Her argument then led to the debate’s first reference to the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP), recent legislation Kooyenga – along with State Rep. Alberta Darling – co-authored that turns over struggling MPS schools to outside operators. Baker, who regularly referred to the OSPP as "the takeover of our schools," wondered why the program points to governance as the issue. Kooyenga pointed out that the OSPP’s goal is actually to save public schools.

"The plan actually takes these schools and tries a new approach and then hands them back to Milwaukee Public Schools," he noted.

The state representative then went into the politics of charter schools, noting that they’re not a Republican creation and rattling off Democratic leaders who’ve supported charter schools around the nation. Baker countered, noting that the politics don’t matter, that MPS teaches a higher percentage of special education students as opposed to charters – "we have to make sure we’re not comparing apples to chimpanzees," she argued – and that the OSPP removes money and resources, not only schools and students, from MPS. Once again, Kooyenga argued for concern over students, not money.

"This is not an economic issue; this is a humanitarian issue, and we’ve got to try something different," he said.

Borsuk tightened the focus of the conversation further on the OSPP, asking Kooyenga how the OSPP is doing so far in his opinion and what he hopes will come out of it. The state representative described the OSPP’s impact as "going well" before describing several changes made since the legislation was signed.

With Baker’s response, the debate shifted to conversation about special needs students and MPS Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver, who Baker noted her qualifications as an educator – and the changes and movements taking place under her watch, including technical education initiatives and Montessori expansion. Kooyenga, however, again emphasized the need "to try something different."

The two also debated Bradley Tech and who deserved credit for recent programs instituted at the school. Kooyenga implied the OSPP motivated Bradley Tech to move toward partnerships with MATC and MSOE; Baker, however, countered that, as someone who sits on the school’s commission, those plans happened before the OSPP legislation. She also countered the idea of a takeover with the idea of community schools.

"There’s a model there that works, and it has nothing to do with governance," Baker argued. "You don’t have to take it from a publicly elected, democratically elected school board – with the accountability that we know is built into that – and hand it to a private operator."

The debate then reached its final major point of discussion: teachers and what Wisconsin and Milwaukee are doing to get better teachers. Kooyenga opened the topic expressing support for the profession.

"Teachers are the most important profession in our country," he noted. "We need to support our teachers – and we need to support our teachers whether they’re in public schools, private schools or charter schools."

Baker answered Kooyenga’s argument by noting that she agreed with and appreciated all of his support for teachers – but that Milwaukee’s issues with holding teachers is partly financial ("Teachers don't go into teaching to get rich … but there’s only so much you can load on people before they just say, ‘I can’t do it anymore’," she said) and partly a result of vilifying the teaching profession.

"You’re responsible for every problem in the world, and anything that isn’t solved, you’re going to get punished for – and I’m going to cut your paycheck on top of that as well," Baker noted as the public perception of the teaching profession.

Kooyenga countered arguing about "professional cannibalism" on the part of MPS, choosing to balance the budget by doing layoffs rather than taking more to add to health care and pensions. He also noted the positive impact of lifting the residency requirements, something Baker actually argued against, noting MPS teachers often ended up leaving MPS instead. And with that final disagreement, the formal not-debate came to a close.

In his opening statements, Borsuk asked that the crowd stay respectful during the discussion with no interruptions, and for the most part, the crowd complied – although a hiss quietly grew from the audience over the course of the debate due to some arguments and answers. It particularly registered about midway through the discussion, when Kooyenga briefly put the effort of some teachers in question and, shortly after, countered Baker’s argument about the money OSPP would take from MPS by saying, "You’re focusing on the dollars; I want to focus on the student." The statement received a mix of applause and audible groans from the audience. 

The most notable audience interactions, however, obviously came during the discussion’s brief Q&A at the very end of the event. After a question and brief discussion about OSPP and wraparound services, the following inquiry asked about what happens if MPS says no, to which Kooyenga said he’s "not going to take my ball and go home."

"Federal law – voted on by Tammy Baldwin and Barack Obama – says we need to do something with our five percent lowest performing schools," Kooyenga said, "so if they’re not going to try something different with this small number of schools … then we’ll go back to the drawing board, or I would encourage Dr. Means and Chris Abele to take a more aggressive approach."

Kooyenga then argued that Abele just won an election running against "the first person ever to run for office – ever – to say I’m not going to do something for failing schools," drawing an uttered but clearly audible, "That’s bullsh*t," from said opponent Chris Larson, who was in the crowd for the day’s debate.

Baker also countered Kooyenga’s point by arguing, "If the issue at hand is to provide wraparound services, to respect teachers, to create innovation, all of that can be done without changing governance," drawing a rare spat of applause from the audience.

And with a few final questions, the discussion came to a close – though it is clearly far from finished. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.