As progressives fiddle, Madison burns

Marc Eisen on the Madison Metropolitan School District, from whose La Follette High School I graduated:

This has been a dreadful few weeks for the Madison public schools.

Under attack from both the left and the right, and hobbled by self-inflicted wounds, the district finds itself in a weakened if not a precarious political position. What’s the worst of it?

How about the flawed school superintendent search that yielded only one viable candidate? Or Gov. Scott Walker’s sneak attack to push school vouchers and privatized schools in Madison? Both worthy contenders, but for me, the capper was the shenanigans surrounding the Madison school board primary.

Has Madison politics ever seen such high-handed, self-absorbed behavior as that of leading vote-getter Sarah Manski?

Backed by key political players in town, Manski ran a profoundly irresponsible and deceitful campaign. By dropping out within 48 hours of winning the primary, she betrayed the voters, subverted the election and undermined confidence in school governance. …

Simply put, there isn’t a tougher public office in Dane County than a seat on the Madison school board. Somebody is always mad at you, money is tight, and educational issues are devilishly complex. And this just in! There is no magic wand to wave our school problems away. All we know for sure is that more of the same won’t cut it.

The schools are failing to educate the district’s growing population of minority kids. Note that in 1991, 21% of students were non-white; 20 years later, the figure was 53%. Only about half of black and Latino youth graduate. The percentage deemed to be college-ready is embarrassingly small.

The district’s problems are not new. Almost a decade ago, John Wiley, then chancellor of UW-Madison, convened a meeting to discuss how the Madison schools, once a draw for faculty recruitment, were becoming a hindrance. Among the complainants, Wiley recounts, were top black UW faculty and staff who did not like how their children were treated in the Madison schools.

Those concerns, of course, echo loudly today in the efforts of the Urban League’s Kaleem Caire to address the problems of minority students in the Madison schools. For that effort, Caire has been ostracized by progressive leaders. My opinion is very different. I belong to the Urban League, and I think that Caire is uncommonly brave in facing unpleasant facts.

Like it or not, we’re in an era of change and choice in education. Extending public vouchers to private schools in Madison may be wild overreach by the governor, but Madison parents already have choices for schooling.

If they don’t like their neighborhood school, parents can open-enroll their child in any Madison school or even in a suburban district. They can pack up and move to a suburban district. They can enroll their kid in a public charter school like Nuestro Mundo. They can send their child to a private school. They can home-school. They can sign their kid up for one of the many online schools.

This is a good thing. As long as academic programs address state educational standards and meaningful accountability is in place, why shouldn’t parents be able to pick a school setting they feel best suits their child’s needs? More to the point, why shouldn’t the district’s response to the painful achievement gap demonstrate this flexibility?

Progressives struggle with this. In the face of the Walker ascendancy, they’re basically fighting a rearguard and probably losing action. They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract — and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system’s manifest failure.

Because he hasn’t, Caire is shunned. The latest instance is the upcoming ED Talks Wisconsin, a progress-minded education-reform conference sponsored by the UW School of Education, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the mayor’s office and other groups. Discussion of “a community-wide K-12 agenda” to address the achievement gap is a featured event. A fine panel has been assembled, including Mayor Paul Soglin, but Caire is conspicuously absent.

How can progressives not bring the Urban League to the table? Agree or disagree with its failed plan for the single-sex Madison Prep charter school, the Urban League has worked the hardest of any community group to bridge the achievement gap. This includes launching a scholars academy, the South Madison Promise Zone, ACT test-taking classes and periodic events honoring young minority students.

But Caire is branded as an apostate because he worked with conservative school-choice funders in Washington, D.C. So in Madison he’s dismissed as a hapless black tool of powerful white plutocrats. Progressives can’t get their head around the idea that the black-empowerment agenda might coincide with a conservative agenda on education, but then clash on a dozen other issues.

A. David Dahmer, who appears to also not be a conservative, adds about Manski’s former candidacy:

The unfortunate consequence of this was the silencing and the marginalization of a woman of color — Ananda Mirilli — in a city that frequently and consistently silences its people of color. Ananda, an extremely passionate, smart, hard-working, experienced, and knowledgeable woman who spends a tremendous amount of time with young people in her community, is left on the outside looking in. Campaign over.  Hours and days and weeks of very hard work all down the drain because another one of Madison’s liberal power elites treated her school board race as a back-up plan. That’s a special kind of entitlement. It’s the manifestation of blatant white privilege. …

And so the MMSD School Board race that came crashing down pretty much typifies the status of race relations we see every day and the tremendous racial divide we have in Madison right now. White elite liberals dictating to, condescending to, and manipulating Madison’s communities of color. This is when they are kind enough to not completely ignore them which, unfortunately, is most of the time. As the Editor in Chief of The Madison Times Weekly Newspaper and the Vice President of the Board of Directors for Centro Hispano of Dane County, I have attended just about every major minority event, forum, scholarship fund-raiser, reading day, conference, gala, educational awards ceremony, and more over the last decade. And most of the minor ones. Not once have I ever seen Mrs. Manski or Mr. Mertz at any of them.

Not once.

In over a decade. …

This is the same white liberal elite that had no idea that blacks and Latinos graduated at horrific rates in Madison until Kaleem Caire came to town and shouted it over and over a few years ago.
And then proceeded to make him public enemy no. 1. …

As white liberals, we get excited to point out Republican racism. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It puts us in a safe spot to ignore our own racism, our own faults, and our own segregated city.  Look at what Sen. Glenn Grothman said! What a racist!  Yet somehow we’re not particularly appalled at own almost completely white Common Council year after year and our liberal elite white power structure. Somehow we’re not really appalled that people of color come to this town from New York, California, Texas, and Latin America for school and immediately leave when they get done because Madison has nothing to offer them culturally and because Madison’s treatment of minorities depresses them.

That’s because there are two Madisons.  At our own fun, liberal, near-eastside extravaganzas — La Fete de Marquette, Willy Street Fair, Marquette Waterfront Fest, Orton Fest, etc. — there’s nary a brown face or a black face in the crowd. Slightly less than you’d find at a Republican Convention. In the same vein, at all of the fantastic minority events that I go to in Madison, I am almost always the only white person in the room (except for Mr. Jon Gramling).

I often hear conversations among my white liberal friends talking smack about and making fun of Milwaukee and its hyper-segregation, its tremendous white flight, its subtle and overt racism. I want to shout at them. “WE ARE MILWAUKEE JR.”

In short, our white-dominated liberal events and organizations in Madison never come close to resembling our growing diverse population and never include multiple voices, styles, and cultural norms. While our discussion of the horrendous achievement gap that has existed in Madison for 40-plus years was finally started by a black guy, it’s only allowed to be discussed and solved by a small group of whites who have no feel for, connection to, or dialogue with the minority communities they want to save.

Derrel Connor, who is not white:

In my last column, I wrote that Madison’s communities of color needed to become involved and engaged. They need to get off the sidelines and get in the game.

What I failed to add to that was it’s also hard to become a part of the game when it’s rigged against you.

If these had been two Republicans placing first and second in this primary with a Democrat finishing third under the same circumstances, progressives would be storming the Capitol right now. There would be hard-hitting editorials in progressive newspapers accusing conservatives of rigging elections, not the fluff pieces that we’ve been reading.

Madison’s communities of color are constantly told by white progressives that people like Governor Scott Walker, radio talk show host Vicki McKenna and blogger Dave Blaska are the enemy. While some may agree, they haven’t been the ones silencing, patronizing and marginalizing folks of color in Madison. That distinction belongs to the liberal establishment in this community.

You have consistently done the most harm to us, and it stinks. We’re tired of it.

As a former Urban League board member and chair, I am also disgusted by the way this organization has been treated by some of Madison’s political establishment. The Urban League has been at the forefront of many issues concerning the disenfranchised and people of color in this community, in particular, education. Yet over the past couple of years they have been treated like garbage. …

I understand that it’s not fair to paint all white liberal progressives in Madison with a broad brush. Many are just as outraged by what’s been happening to folks of color in this community as we are.

If you sit by and watch while it happens and fail to stand up for what’s right, you become just as complicit as the ones who are doing it.

My hometown has changed. And not for the better.


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