Monday, June 15, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

JS coverage rushed past the innovative scrutiny of
Ald. Kovac's winning ordinances June 11.
A five year moratorium on City Hall creating charter schools had become a symbolic cause of the Stop MPS Takeover movement and drew an overflow crowd of worried charter supporters and anxious MPS families to the June 11 hearing by the influential Common Council Steering & Rules Committee.

The only newspaper coverage of the hearing by Journal Sentinel missed the heart of what actually happened – a three to one victory for more scrupulous public standards and a deliberate set of barriers if not absolute halt to the creation of more city authorized charter schools. 

Nor did any establishment media touch the primary motive for tabling the moratorium proposal. 

Most aldermen thought that idea was too easy to reverse in future council votes and probably too aggressive a stick in the eye of the Madison legislature. The state, alas, has the purse strings and legislative authority to take away the Common Council’s power to approve its own schools. 

Not that the aldermen didn’t sympathize with or share the outrage at the interference from Madison by this constantly evolving Darling-Kooyenga K-12 hustle, whose autocratic motives and clumsy research leap off the pages of their original fancy brochure proposal. 

Except the Darling-Kooyenga hustle wasn’t in front of the aldermen. They just didn’t like the strategy of the ordinance author, Ald. Tony Zielinksi. Some also took Zielinski’s effort as overwrought opportunism to court votes since next April he faces a former school board member, Meagan Holman, who has sometimes supported charter projects.  They may agree on the bubble-headedness emanating from Madison, but local officials are touchy if proposed ordinances seem too obviously election motivated.

So without the charter movement crowd or the reporter much noticing, in two new ordinances sponsored by vice chair Nik Kovac the panel required the Charter School Review Committee (CSRC) to add to its evaluation criteria the financial impact on MPS of any new school considered. That puts the onus back on how the state uses taxpayer money for schools and forces the Common Council to acknowledge up front its culpability in MPS fortunes.

The committee also imposed controls that will shut down the often automatic financial spigot enjoyed by Howard Fuller and his Marquette University Institute for the Transformation of Learning. (Approved city charters almost routinely receive large federal startup grants.)

Look in vain inside the JS story for information about these major changes and even the rebuke to CSRC chair Jeanette Mitchell for not providing aldermen with better information. 

Quietly the aldermen had recognized that something needed to be done about the flawed funding formula that means every new charter it allowed was stealing money from MPS and fudging the income and population realities of the city.  Meanwhile the runaway train that is Wisconsin’s current government continues to expand the failed voucher and charter models. 

It may not want to be but City Hall is part of the problem.  Of the city’s 10 charter schools with more than 3,200 students, only its downtown Montessori exceeds expectations (as it did long before it was a city charter) while the others often fail expectations. 

Some converted from voucher schools because they would gain more taxpayer money as charters.  A few are sincerely meant with new ideas for teaching, but struggle with staff and accountability goals. Others are part of the trend of national chains selling lower-cost promises, a revolving door of novice low-paid teachers, babysitting video games masked as education and friendliness at the entrance steps while actually treating kids as a new profit center, yet all these still lag in academic performance.

No wonder many in the movement had come to think of city charter approval as a pushover.

Until June 11. To the surprise of many MPS advocates who regard the city as unsympathetic, the committee insisted on better results and higher scrutiny. (How can Madison attack that?) What they passed will make it more difficult for charter approval and probably force re-examination of previously approved chains expecting slam-dunk expansion. The decisions linked any further growth of city charter schools to performance and professional in-house oversight – something like MPS is doing with its own charter schools, including those that chart their own course and those that follow existing training and union pay standards.

It’s been little touted that Wisconsin’s most successful charter schools are the tightly monitored ones of both sorts run by public school districts. 

The simplistic pros and cons of the charter, voucher and MPS debate brought an abnormally high turnout for this hearing – but that doesn’t excuse how Vivian Wang's JS story  didn’t see the nuances or the undercurrents. That brought complaints about the story from elected officials. Several aldermen felt their shrewd attempt at balance was overlooked. They learned the hard way that the intellectual colors of past journalism have vanished and today’s Milwaukee newspaper, in terms of thoughtfulness, is printed in black and white.

City Clerk Jim Owczarski moved in
One new ordinance turns over to respected City Clerk Jim Owczarski and his publicly accountable staff the office duties once controlled by Fuller’s people.

Owczarski confirmed in an interview that his public officials will be “taking over the staffing of meetings, posting of agendas, taking of minutes, and will likely work on the custodianship of records.”  The Marquette institute will assist in the application and monitoring process rather than staffing or even holding meetings in its own space, something that the Common Council didn’t at first know was happening when it selected this Catholic university division as  review agent. It has only belatedly realized how many schools guided through the city process were connected to groups and conduits Fuller was part of. 

The city also pledged June 11 that all future meetings of the CSRC will be televised – and miked, which hasn’t always been the case. 

The aldermen are tightening up, demanding deeper better reports from a CSRC  appointed equally by the mayor and the president of the Common Council (with the comptroller adding a financial officer). Under departed council president Willie Hines, whose appointments still dominate, the process drew constant citizen complaints of being too obedient to Fuller’s power plays in the national charter school network. Marva Herndon of Women Informed noted she was hopeful after “years of fighting with them” because this new action acknowledges what her group wanted -- recognition that “the Common Council was responsible for the CSRC” and that the past process “was not transparent.”  

Ald. Michael Murphy in charge.
The new council president, Ald. Michael Murphy, cannot be regarded as an MPS or MTEA proponent. He is respected for a crisp studious air and an understanding of compromise politics. He has been criticized for not being tough enough on charter and voucher schools, such as backing away from a stricter ordinance requiring playgrounds at all elementary schools, preferring a milder approach. He even chastised a research minded advocate from a community organization for public education, Schools and Communities United, that “your interest does not lie in the improvement and proper supervision of charter schools but their elimination,” sternly reaffirming Murphy’s  legal obligation.

He may not yet realize he is protecting a vapid ordinance written loosely in the 1990s, but at least he’s trying to tighten the system around it.

Consider the wishy-washy mandate in city ordinances: “The proposed school will operate an education program that has a reasonable prospect of providing Milwaukee children a good education.” 

“Reasonable prospect”? That’s a low standard, hardly a match for the original vision of charter schools. That was to innovate on methods and specialties or, as former president Bill Clinton succinctly explained, “They’re supposed to do a better job educating students.”

But during the Clinton era the city set up shop with a definition that has stretched the meaning of “reasonable prospect” beyond reasonable recognition. The original ordinance didn’t require annual external accounting to the public but at least required an annual academic “scorecard” from the respected Children’s Research Center (CRC), a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. It still mystifies citizens that schools that didn’t score well or didn’t show advancement in the past were given multiple second chances by the city system, but it becomes clearer when you look at the limp wording of the original ordinance.

Now it’s Murphy fielding lingering complaints from parents and community groups about what even fellow aldermen call “abysmal” results and in philosophical musings he has demeaned the attitude that to benefit the minority community aldermen can let in schools with persistent low outcomes "because they mean well.”  

So the hearing revealed a new balance. Murphy wants the city to keep its power to create schools but seems troubled about the consequences, including punishing MPS with every new student and keeping alive several schools previously identified as laggards.  

Murphy on June 11 saw that both sides were primed for a prolonged debate over the Zielinski proposal with signs, children, speakers and more. The MPS parents and teens who arrived early for the hearing were somehow pushed to the back rows while the later-arriving T-shirt emblazoned Rocketship parents, middle school children and charter forces armed with green placards took the prominent rows before the cameras – a common public relations ploy of using children in the education debate.  But there were so many in both camps that dozens more were relegated to the overflow chamber down the hall (many muttered it was just the same as staying home and watching it all on the access channel). 

To the disappointment of the well prepared, Murphy shut down any public testimony (avoiding not just redundancy but the likelihood that the meeting would stretch into the evening). After minimal debate he sped to setting aside the Zielinski proposal – all with studious goodwill. These actions cleverly pulled attention away from the ordinances that vice chair Kovac had previously introduced and been smoothly passed. 

Murphy, as one wag put it, “runs a great railroad.” With brisk businesslike manner he made sure all aldermen had time to speak. It was an exercise in intelligent politics.  Even Stop MPS Takeover advocates were impressed at the positive results, crediting their “shovel and spade work,” as one put it.  “Dare I say hopeful?” one member told colleagues.

Clearly it is a different world from the Hines days and the Fuller rubber stamp even if it wasn’t the moratorium some wanted as they see all the out of town evils descending on MPS. But the demand for real proof of important educational gains deepened when the panel pulled back an outrageous but previously routine  request for a new five-year contract for the still on-probation King’s Academy, giving the new principal only two years to live up to her promises.

On June 14, even the JS veteran education reporter, Alan Borsuk, took notice, though buried near the end of a Sunday  Q&A “primer” for novices on what charter schools are and aren’t. (“Q. Are charter schools getting better results? A. Yes, no and maybe so.”)

But he offered the aldermanic cutback on King’s Academy as “a good example of how the idea is supposed to work.” 

In this era of gridlock where progressive Milwaukee is the obvious target of flailing  state government, there will be constant arguments about the best tactics for dealing with that Madison beast with the big teeth threatening further bites if local officials strike back.

MPS is the ugliest case, a farewell gift to Alberta Darling, presumed to retire in 2016. Despite bizarre acquiescence from County Executive Chris Abele buddying up to a beneficiary of his financial largesse, GOP co-sponsor Dale Kooyenga, this is still a horrible concept in new hair coloring

But it has spurred the search for citizen awareness, new strategies and even surprise attacks to deal with the power hungry who can’t be shamed or reasoned into looking outside their own bubble.

In its indirect assault on a small piece of the puzzle, the Common Council just took a tactical approach so subtle that the JS reporter on the scene didn’t notice. But the public should.

In the interest of transparency, Borsuk who did notice a bit continues as a Sunday columnist for JS but is now actually a senior fellow in law and public policy in a different division of the same university (Marquette) that employs Fuller as professor. It is also the campus where I have taught, organized events and am listed as alum. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for


  1. Great rundown, Dom. As usual, top-notch and thorough.

    Did the JS reporter miss it, or was that person told not to talk about it? Given the connections between JournalComm and the pro-voucher MMAC (and both being huge supporters of Scott Walker and suburban GOPs like Kooyenga and Darling), they may not want people to know what's really going on in what seems to be a growing movement against this 25-year failed experiment in school privatization.

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