By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 08, 2013 at 2:15 PM

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce – which has in the past supported stripping the elected school board of its power and drawing away funding from Milwaukee Public Schools to pay for private and religious school vouchers – sponsored a pair of PowerPoint presentations on education that were shown to its members in August.

These slideshows touted the so-called "recovery districts" in New Orleans and Memphis and suggest to me – and others I've spoken to – that rumors that the group is pushing the recovery district idea for Milwaukee are true.

Recovery districts are public school systems that have had their autonomy and local control usurped by state capitols at the urging of corporate school reformers whose goal is to privatize public schools. The districts are then turned over to private, outside entities that are accountable to no one ... or at least not us citizens and parents.

For the full story on why corporate reformers would like to accomplish this – especially in Milwaukee, a city that consistently fails to deliver the vote to its political allies – you should read Diane Ravitch’s new book, "Reign of Error," which makes it all quite clear.

But in the meantime, the Think Twice think tank review project of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education has reviewed the two presentations – "The Achievement School District’s Presentation in Milwaukee," by Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the Achievement School District in Memphis, and "The Recovery School District’s Presentation" in Milwaukee, by Patrick Dobard, superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Today, Think Twice – a project also supported by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice – released a report on the two presentations, saying that they offer no valid evidence that the recovery districts work and oversell the idea of the recovery district approach.

"The portfolio district models in New Orleans and Memphis qualify as intriguing ones that might very well hold significant promise for the future of urban education," said Bill Henk, dean and professor in Marquette University's College of Education.

"However, the NEPC report argues quite convincingly that caution should prevail until more and stronger evidence of their effectiveness emerges. In effect, that analysis begs the question of whether the adoption of similar models in more than 25 other urban districts amounts to a premature and tenuous rush to judgment."

The report was prepared by Elizabeth DeBray, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Georgia, and Huriya Jabbar, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Policymakers considering such reforms should not act without a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of relevant evidence. ... While the presentations both include strong assertions of positive results, they should acknowledge the thin evidence base on portfolio governance and consider possible alternative explanations for those asserted results. Specifically, the reported achievement gains are suspect and may be attributable to other unexamined factors such as the massive out-migration of New Orleans students," reads the summary of the report.

"The Memphis data are too limited in scope and time to be conclusive. The purported teacher and administrator human-capital improvements that are reported in both presentations are not specified. Finally, the influx of unexamined federal and philanthropic funds may underestimate true costs, and the implications for community relations are not well developed. In conclusion, the presentations fail to provide the research base needed for policymakers," the summary continues.

"I am pleased that more information is available examining the claims that were made by Memphis and New Orleans school leaders to MMAC businessmen at a closed-doors meeting in August," MTEA President Bob Peterson told me this morning. "If the MMAC is going to advocate handing public schools over to private companies, they need to produce solid research showing parents and educators that such an approach can work – and as this review shows, they haven't been able to do that.

"We are currently working with a variety of parent and community groups in a Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover to oppose this kind of 'recovery zone' and other plans that hurt children's constitutional right to a free and quality public school system. We will use the high quality research like that issued today to inform our perspectives.

"Business leaders in this community should do the same and not abandon the public schools. They should help parents and teachers fix them."

Milwaukee Board of School Directors' Jeff Spence said that successful models for improving student outcomes are worthy of investigation, but there must be proven results to undertake such changes.

"Bottom line is that if there is proof that a change in school governance structures creates a sea change in student achievement and there is empirical evidence on that point, it would be irresponsible not to discuss a move in that direction," Spence said.

"(But) I think the authors nailed it," he added via email. "Many of us involved in creating/changing educational policy don’t have issues with innovative change to create better educational outcomes, we however are opposed to change that is rooted in salesmanship or partisanship rather than sustained bona fide results."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.