By Jay Bullock Special to Published Jan 28, 2014 at 12:02 PM

Dear Wall Street Journal,

It is nice to see the Journal taking an interest in Milwaukee's doings again; it has been more than a decade since, for example, you elite Manhattanites writing for the nation's foremost financial newspaper deigned to endorse candidates for the Milwaukee school board, in elections where perhaps a couple thousand people even voted.  That was such a great use of your time and resources.

(These endorsements are all ably documented in Milwaukee journalist Barbara Miner’s book Lessons from the Heartland.)

I write specifically in response to the op-ed published last week written by C. J. Szafir "The Vacant School Buildings That Made Milwaukee Infamous" (because there's nothing Milwaukeeans like better than a Schlitz joke!), about the Milwaukee Public Schools and certain conservative schemers' plans for things that don't belong to them. It's part of a long-running attempt to subvert local control and force MPS to sell properties it is using, or planning to use, to outside groups.

I write today not just because I disagree with the thrust of Szafir's argument (paraphrasing: "MPS ought to just do whatever I want, darn it!"), but because Szafir gets so many basic facts wrong or leaves basic facts out, it is impossible to take him seriously.

(It is equally impossible to take Szafir seriously because, while he does not directly work for St. Marcus Lutheran School – the school he advocates should have been given an MPS building to operate in – his salary is paid by the same right-wing foundations that fund St. Marcus and many other schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Of course he supports the same things they do.)

For example, Szafir gets things like the enrollment at MPS wrong, saying about 71,000 students rather than the actual number of nearly 78,500, a difference of 10 percent (and an increase over last year). If the Wall Street Journal cannot be bothered to check these most basic facts, how can we trust anything else it prints in its op-eds?

And Szafir writes that the empty building that St. Marcus wished to purchase, but couldn't – the people who owned that building had the temerity to sell it to someone else because free market! – is "conveniently located on the same block as [St. Marcus's] main campus." This is so false it's not even funny. Google maps tells me the buildings are almost a mile a part. 

And since Szafir is on record, getting this fact right before your readers are now clearly left to question his motives – is this an honest mistake or a "mistake" that just happens to make St. Marcus look like that much more the innocent victim?

Szafir also repeatedly tells your readers that schools like St. Marcus are "high performing." He does that without offering a meaningful comparison of performance data, even though he gleefully cherry-picks some statistics about MPS to show that the public schools are failing. When he writes that MPS has only 16 percent of its 4th graders scoring proficient or above in reading, he picks a low statistic just because he can, ignoring grades that score better and not mentioning math at all, where 24 percent of MPS 4th graders score proficient or advanced.

I can do the same kind of cherry-picking for St. Marcus. Only 18 percent of its 3rd graders score proficient or better in reading, according to state data, which is not quantitatively much different from MPS's 4th graders, is it? 

St. Marcus's 6th grade is worse – only 9 percent are proficient or better. By Szafir's standards, there's no way that's "high performing." Indeed, it is probably a "crisis" – the label he reserves for MPS. In fact, if you look at voucher schools as a whole, they underperform MPS more often than not.

Further, since the MPS school planned for the building in question to be an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the better comparison is not MPS as a whole, but the district's other IB MYP: Wedgewood Park.  There, 28 percent of 6th graders are proficient or advanced in reading, and 55 percent in math – a better number than the state as a whole and far, far better than any of St. Marcus' 6th grade stats.

(Another parenthetical: Wisconsin's percentage of students proficient or better in reading, overall statewide, is only 37 percent – 34 percent in just 4th grade – in case you were thinking that "proficient" were the kind of thing half or more of a state's students ought to be scoring. This is because Wisconsin, like other states, is using a bad reading of NAEP standards to set its proficiency levels.)

Szafir also offers your readers a conservative's-eye summary of 24 years of the Milwaukee voucher program, with those poor voucher schools always the victim (never the children of schools that crash and burn far worse than any MPS school ever could).

He concludes that history with a bold lie about "they" – "teachers unions, state bureaucrats and the far left":

"Now they are trying to block schools in the choice program from expanding," he says. 

As if unions and bureaucrats have literally invaded these schools' boards of directors and voted down any attempt to expand them. In fact, what Szafir has his knickers twisted about is that one building that MPS sold to someone other than St. Marcus. 

Indeed, MPS offered to sell St. Marcus two other buildings closer to the "main campus," and a third not much farther away. If the union thugs and gummint bureaucrats are really trying to stop St. Marcus from expanding, offering to sell it space is a really lousy way to do it.

In short, what Szafir has offered in your pages, dear Wall Street Journal, is an error-riddled piece of propaganda designed to elicit sympathy for a single school – a low-performing (but private!) school throwing a fit because it didn't get what it wanted for Christmas. This is a bad way to make public policy, and a worse way to treat your readership.


Jay Bullock, Milwaukee

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.