Republican Legislator, Union Rep Debate Milwaukee Education Issues

May 18, 2016

Many things happening on Milwaukee’s education scene are ripe for debate – school vouchers, testing and budgets, to name a few.

Often, those conversations happen at hearings or rallies, or on the floor of the Wisconsin state capitol. But this week, the Marquette University law school brought education players from Madison and Milwaukee together in a debate-like setting to slug out the issues.

Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Lauren Baker, executive director of the Milwaukee teacher’s union, MTEA, squared off in what was dubbed a “conversation on Milwaukee education” Tuesday afternoon. These heavyweights have gone back and forth on the issues so frequently that moderator and Milwaukee education guru Alan Borsuk decided it was time for an in-person matchup.

They are important, but no decisions would come of the event, just the chance to one-up the other side.

Round one: school funding.

The first punch Baker threw, she insisted Milwaukee gets the short end of the stick when it comes to state dollars for education, in part because the district is losing students and resources to charter and voucher schools.

Kooyenga responded that funding conversations should focus on students, rather than districts.

“I’m all for the discussion as far as a student is a student," Kooyenga said. "[With] a student-centered approach, the amount of funding per child should be equal across those children, no matter what type of school they go to.”

Round two: teachers.

Baker cited a recent Public Policy Forum study, showing that Milwaukee’s teacher pipeline is shrinking.

“There’s only so much you can load on people before they just say, ‘I can’t do it anymore,'" Baker explained. "And we have vilified in this state the teaching profession, and teachers in particular. And I can see a lot of heads nodding. A lot of heads who might not nod with me on everything I say.”

As Baker shuffled in her corner, Kooyenga said he believes in rewarding good teachers, as well as looking at options for attracting the best in the profession.

And, round three: school turnaround.

Kooyenga co-authored the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, or OSPP. It will put a handful of MPS schools under outside control to course-correct for a few years. He said the plan will help Superintendent Darienne Driver improve all 155 MPS buildings.

“We want Dr. Driver to continue to execute and move things forward at the strategic level. But at the tactical level, we want to take these schools, and we want to try something different,” Kooyenga said. 

In response, Baker called the plan an “experiment” on Milwaukee’s kids, and suggested legislators consider a different model for change.

“Instead of taking $41 million out of the Milwaukee Public Schools -- and MPS is this island that continues to sink -- why can’t we promote authentic community schools?” she asked.

One hour of conversation only allowed time for three rounds. At the end, it was time to name our winner.

“I don’t think anybody won,” said audience member and Milwaukee educator Brianne Stuard. “I think what I heard today was a stump speech by an elected official, and a lot of talking points from the MTEA, but neither side addressed the whole picture. I didn’t hear anything new.”

Judging by reactions from Stuard and many of her fellow audience members, it sounds like there would be demand for a future rematch.

You can rewatch video of the full conversation between Kooyenga and Baker here

Tags: