By Jay Bullock Special to Published Feb 04, 2014 at 8:31 AM

The school-reform proposal that went before the Milwaukee Public Schools board last week, and was eventually sent back to committee with no forward motion, was flawed in many ways when its started, but ended up something reasonably good. By sending the plan back to the drawing board, though – in no small part because the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the teachers union, engaged in an ugly display of intimidation at last Thursday's meeting – MPS, MTEA and the city may well have shot itself in the foot. Maybe both feet.

On the one hand, it may seem kind of dumb for MPS to even be considering any kind of large-scale reforms, seeing as how the state legislature seems ready to take a sledgehammer to the public schools (while blowing a big wet kiss to their voucher school competitors) any day now.

On the other hand, doing nothing is, you know, doing nothing. And, like everyone said, everyone involved in the fight last week that eventually led to doing nothing, they said nothing is the one thing we can't do.

And yet.

Some background, if you're just joining us. MPS has, to put it delicately, an achievement problem. Its students routinely score far below their out-state counterparts and though it seems like there hasn't been a single year in the last four decades that people around here haven't been talking about fixing things, things are not fixed. (Though recent years' data are in fact moving in the right direction after a decade of stagnation; the Andrekopoulos years were not kind to MPS, but that's another column.)

After a few months of back-and-forth last fall with interested parties, including MTEA, the MPS office of innovation put forward a plan for how to deal with some of its persistently low-performing schools (see it here in pdf format). If you read it, you will notice that there's an explicit part of the plan that calls for turning some of these schools over to private, non-MPS charter school operators.

Handing over a school to a charter means pulling out all MPS employees – teachers, administrators, aides – and giving the reins to someone else. (The proposal says the the schools will keep "all currently enrolled students who choose to attend," which sounds to me a lot like code for "get rid of the bad kids" – which would absolutely boost the achievement in those schools. Win!) MPS has never done this before, hand a fully functioning school over to a charter operator. It has over the years chartered a number of non-MPS schools – some good, some bad – and often let those schools use empty MPS buildings. But this is new.

This is also exactly what got proposed in SB286, the "school accountability bill" (which has so many of its own problems – but that, too, is another column) that is the sledgehammer mentioned earlier. That the MPS administration would propose the same blunt remedy as the MPS-haters in the state's Republican caucus is particularly galling.

(Fairness demands I pause here to say that, as I write this, SB286 has been withdrawn and may or may not reappear in some form later this session, though the smart money is on yes. Who knows – by the time this post makes its way through the editorial bowels at OnMilwaukee, a new SB286 might well have been released.)

The MPS proposal started much softer than the state's. A charter handover was just one of three options for what MPS planned to call its "Commitment Schools," with the other two being a community-based reboot of the school or a partnership with an outside vendor. I am big fan of the first, not so much of the second.

(The Andrekopoulos years were full of "vendors" dropped into the district's big high schools, including the ones still at the bottom of the state's report card list.)

And the MPS plan limited its reforms to 6-10 schools a year off state's list of low performing schools, and up to 25 schools over three years, rather than SB286's hard every-failing-MPS-school demand. The MPS plan indicated that there should be a quick but moderately thorough evaluation of the schools including some discussion with the school communities about which of the three kinds of reform the communities wanted.

But the original plan had a giant tell: It included a calendar that listed an RFP (request for proposals) from charter operators and vendors before a single community meeting happened. In other words, the district was planning to seek the charter operators and vendors to use whether or not a single school's community said it wanted such a thing.

So MTEA mobilized against the plan, as it should have. But it did so with a massive fear-based campaign. Weeks of emails and texts bombarded teachers and union leaders at the schools with low scores on the state report card. "Your school is targeted!" they said. "MTEA has been provided a list of 48 schools that are being looked at [for] handing over" to charters, they said. (As if the state's list of low-performing schools weren't public.) Schools have been targeted for things "including the possibility of takeover or closure," they said. All of it was designed to inflame the passions of its members, but it seemed successful not just at that but also at making its members afraid of things that weren't true.

Indeed, when the public testified on Thursday, Jan. 23 at an MPS board committee meeting, a remarkable number of speakers were there to plead with the board not to close their school. "No one is talking about closing schools!" Superintendent Gregory Thornton said exasperatedly at one point. (You can listen to audio of that meeting here.)

MTEA's alternative – and I like it! – is much more like the option of bringing a school's community together to retool the school. They proposed something like what has happened in Cincinnati with its successful "Community Learning Centers" model:

The schools – 34 so far and counting – have full-service health clinics, mental-health counselors, tutoring programs and after-school programs for everything from ballroom dancing to construction classes. The services are available to students and their families and are aimed at improving academic achievement in the poorest, lowest-achieving schools by creating "hubs" for a given community.

MTEA is keen to capitalize on the community collaborative success it has seen in MPS in recent years, the process that merged 81st Street School and 68th Street School, that opened Howard Avenue Montessori in an empty South Side school building, that reformed Bay View High School into the district's first "creativity and innovation" school. These collaborations happened between schools, their parents, their students, their neighborhoods, and the district. The Cincinnati model does this explicitly. (At the full board meeting that sent the plan back to committee, board member Jeff Spence said MPS didn't have the resources to do that sort of thing.)

MTEA has even scheduled planning meetings for "targeted schools" ("We will discuss concrete plans for how we can work together to support and improve our schools, especially those schools that have been targeted," they said. As someone who worked on the successful model that brought changes to Bay View High School, I've been asked to help replicate that process. (And not just in general, I was specifically asked by members of a school community who believe that they are "at the top of the list for closure," I was told, even though in fact they have the highest report card score of any of the failing schools, and they're on a trajectory to be off that list soon. But that they believe they will be closed speaks to how much misinformation the MTEA tactics spread.)

(Also: Let me say, clearly, that I love my union and appreciate what it does and what it stands for. I am a dues-paying member even though I am not legally required to be. But I believe they didn't approach this whole process well at all.)

By the time the plan came up for a final vote last Thursday – the vote that tabled everything for a month – many of the members of the board had pretty clearly come out against new charters, at least in the way the plan was proposed.

But the board also has charter fans, including board president Michael Bonds, who insisted that all three options, including charters, "be on the table." There was no public comment taken at that meeting, but you can hear in the audio (it's here; listen at about the 1:15 mark) that the MTEA members in the audience let Bonds know how they felt about that.

Then two members of the board – Larry Miller and Meagan Holman – demanded significant protections. Miller insisted that any chartering had to happen through the district's current charter process rather than any new authority on the superintendent's part, keeping control of that process in the hands of the board and the public rather than the administration.

Holman added that any decision about a school's future had to happen after a "deep dive" that brings the whole school community together: teachers, students, parents, neighbors, community partners, district representatives.

"We've never asked a school to fight for its life," she said, and it is time to do so.

"I'm honestly fine with leaving every single option on the table, if the the decision-making process for which option we pursue is truly inclusive," Holman said.

But Holman added to her list of constituencies to be involved "charter school leaders," since, she speculated, it's possible community members, the neighborhoods who need to be involved in the process, might want a charter school. Let's be fair about it, she was saying – when you do a big process, people are going to have questions and there should be someone there to answer, as happened during the Bay View reform meetings, when in fact a leader from MPS's Carmen High School was a part of the team that led that effort.

She was not saying, "Hey, let's invite someone from KIPP in to do a hard sell!" No, she was asking for, insisting on, the process that happened at Bay View, the process that I have been asked explicitly to help recreate, before a single school moves on a reform plan.

And you know what didn't happen to Bay View? We didn't become a non-instrumentality charter. No one wanted that. Even the gentleman from Carmen was in consensus with us when it came to that discussion.

But as soon as Holman said the word "charter" in her list, the MTEA folks in the audience loudly reacted. (Listen to the audio at about 1:36.) Then they walked to the front of the auditorium to physically intimidate the board as it discussed and voted on the amended plan with all those protections. Even though Holman put into clear, unambiguous language MTEA's demand (though maybe not as slogan-y as "our schools, our solutions," which is on all the signs and buttons they handed out at the meeting) that the school community must make the decision about its own future, and even though it looked like that had enough votes to pass (even Bonds didn't speak against it before the vote!), MTEA's intimidation meant the board, including Holman, voted no, sending the whole thing back to committee.

Basically, what was up for a vote last week was exactly what MTEA wanted – a process that empowered community voice over administrative fiat – and MTEA beat it back, and called it a win. After the meeting, MTEA said, now we can start the community process at our schools! which, you know, is exactly what they would have been doing had the vote gone the other way, too. And with district funding, personnel and support for the process, which now we don't have.

Bringing us back to the shooting in the foot business.

MPS looks even more like we don't know what we're doing and can't be bothered to take even baby steps toward making changes to low-performing schools. No, passing this last night wouldn't have stopped the state legislature from doing whatever it's going to do, but it certainly doesn't help MPS look any better when later we try to explain why the state shouldn't be treating us differently than they do any other school district in the state. (The bill's author said he wanted to treat "all schools the same and fairly," even though his bill singles out MPS for severe penalties.)

Worse, now we have to do this all over again. Teachers could have had a real victory, forcing the district administration to work cooperatively with school communities on consensus changes at struggling schools. Instead, we've killed forward momentum and angered our allies on the board.

So long, feet.

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.