Action, overreaction and counterreaction

James Wigderson wrote this on the first day of school:

Unfortunately I don’t have any “first day of school” photos from my days in school. We didn’t have phones back then that could take the photo and Matthew Brady was unavailable. I just have cherished memories of walking a mile uphill each way in frigid temperatures that made my daily peregrination resemble the Shackleton expedition.

The destination of these daily walks may surprise some of you. I’m a graduate of Milwaukee Vincent High School. We won’t mention the year, but we’ll point out the school still had that new school smell (as well as urine in the stairwells, etc.). The school is evidence, if anyone needs it, that money and a new building do not add up to academic performance.

Yes, it was possible for me to get a good education there, in part because I sought it out against the odds. I spent my lunch hour my senior year hanging out in the Social Studies study lounge and my other free time in the math department office. I rewrote my school schedule to eliminate gym class starting my sophomore year so I could take extra academic classes and managed to find a guidance counselor to sign the new schedule.

Somebody had to look out for my education.

The school has only gotten worse since my days there. The school “fails to meet expectations” according to the state of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction and it’s not even close. Yet nothing will be done about Vincent and 999 kids will be trapped in a failing school this year. Some students will succeed but the odds are horribly against them. But at least it’s a union school, right?

So imagine my surprise when, thanks to the Facebook page for an upcoming high school reunion, I learned the school is getting a new $5.7 million stadium. The stadium will have artificial grass and a new track for WIAA events. The report I saw didn’t mention metal detectors, but it would be a good idea.

The new stadium is part of an $11 million improvement in athletic facilities for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), presumably so the little convicts can have the best facilities before being sent to the penitentiary.

So the next time someone tells you that MPS needs more money, remind them that more money does not mean a better academic performance. And if they ask for evidence, ask them if $5.7 million could be better spent than on a new stadium for a failing school. And then ask them if the students would be better off with a new track instead of shutting the school down entirely.

At least the artificial turf matches the artificial concern of Wisconsin’s Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, for the well-being of MPS students. Perhaps the new scoreboard can flash the number of kids being pushed through the system without learning anything – not that any of the students will be able to read it.

That prompted this reaction reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A conservative blogger who disparaged Milwaukee Public Schools students as “little convicts” has drawn stinging rebukes from MPS and state lawmakers, who have criticized his remarks as hurtful, racist and dishonest.

The backlash comes in response to a recent column by Right Wisconsin Editor James Wigderson, who made the remark in an essay referencing $11 million in planned upgrades for MPS’ athletic fields, including a new $5.7 million stadium at his alma mater, Vincent High School.

The upgrades were being made, he said, “presumably so the little convicts can have the best facilities before being sent to the penitentiary.”

“The next time someone tells you that MPS needs more money, remind them that more money does not mean a better academic performance,” Wigderson wrote. “And if they ask for evidence, ask them if $5.7 million could be better spent than on a new stadium for a failing school.”

MPS issued a statement Tuesday, touting its students’ achievements and saying it is proud to “provide the same access to state-of-the-art facilities for our students as districts in surrounding areas have for theirs” and accusing Wigderson of cyberbullying.

“MPS is outraged — as every parent in the City of Milwaukee should be — that an adult would feel free to make such a derogatory, hurtful, and dishonest statement about more than 75,000 children,” the statement said.

“We have far too many students who work hard every day and who accomplish great things to let an ill-informed and hateful statement stand without comment,” it went on to say.

Current and former state lawmakers also weighed in.

“This is beyond offensive, pure ignorance and complete ‘BS,'” wrote state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, a Milwaukee Democrat. “MPS is home to 77,000 children. These children, and their families, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”

State Rep. David Crowley, another Milwaukee Democrat, said he must have been one of the “little convicts” for whom tax dollars should not be spent. 

“This kind of racist undertone is how the right communicates,” Crowley tweeted. “This rhetoric is how Trump and the Republican Party continue to rally their white supremacist and base and cannot be met with silence.”

Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and a former state lawmaker, attempted to connect the Wigderson comments to allies of Gov.  Scott Walker.

“They expect their casual racism to be excused,” Barnes tweeted. “The governor’s allies have gone full southern strategy.”

Barnes issued a statement saying, “We have long been ranked the worst state for black Americans, and the governor’s allies continue to drive a wedge and make things even worse with their rhetoric.”

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley declined to comment on the remarks during a visit to Reagan High School where U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Frank Brogan was meeting with students to discuss their anti-bullying efforts.

District spokeswoman Denise Callaway said MPS is not seeking an apology but said the district will use the opportunity to help people understand what it is doing to educate students.

And Callaway made it clear that she deemed Wigderson’s piece “unacceptable.”

Asked if she considered it racist, Callaway said: “That is for other people to judge. It certainly perpetuates stereotypes, which are by definition untrue.”

“How small is it to be a cyberbully against children?” Callaway said.

Wigderson did not return an email from the Journal Sentinel asking to discuss the column but criticized Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice, who first raised the issue on social media.

Wigderson tweeted that he was referring specifically to Deontay Long, a standout Milwaukee basketball player who was recently sentenced to five years of probation for his role in an armed robbery last year.

“So the only smear being done here is by @DanielBice because if he was a serious journalist he would know how to click a link and actually share the context of my statement,” Wigderson tweeted.

Wigderson then wrote:

Now, unlike a lot of other MPS graduates, I have actually paid attention to what has happened to my high school since I left. In fact, it’s largely the result of my experience in MPS and what has happened since I graduated that I have remained concerned about education. I have written about school choice and alternative education since I was a blogger, and then as a columnist for the Waukesha Freeman, then as an education reporter for Watchdog.org, and now as editor of RightWisconsin.

Here’s the bad news about my old school: it’s failing. It’s failing big time. It wasn’t a great school when I graduated (as I described in the editorial) and now it’s worse. There are 999 students trapped in that failing school, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Instead of doing something about it, MPS is building them a new stadium for sports. Instead of getting the kids out of that failing school, or doing something to improve the schools, MPS is putting in artificial turf.

As I wrote in the editorial in a line not being re-posted on Twitter, “At least the artificial turf matches the artificial concern of Wisconsin’s Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, for the well-being of MPS students.”

But what has them really upset is that I wrote:

“The new stadium is part of an $11 million improvement in athletic facilities for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), presumably so the little convicts can have the best facilities before being sent to the penitentiary.”

The line, with the link to a Fox 6 story that my critics neglect to mention, is clearly referring to the Deontay Long case. Long, for those of you that have forgotten, was a Milwaukee Washington basketball star convicted of armed robbery – a felony – but was still allowed to play by MPS in the state basketball tournament while he awaited sentencing. It’s a clear example of MPS’ screwed up priorities that they still haven’t addressed.

If MPS and my critics are upset with me for referencing that as an example of the screwed-up priorities of the school district, they need to be upset with every other media outlet that bothered to report the story, too.

I obviously did not intend the line to reference all students in MPS. I explained earlier in the editorial how I was an MPS graduate and I included the link to the story about Deontay Long. If I intended to “smear” (as a Journal Sentinel reporter wrote without ever contacting me) all MPS students, I wouldn’t have included the link, nor would I have mentioned my own educational background.

What’s been most disappointing about the reaction to my editorial is how my critics, willing to seize on a fake “gotcha” moment for their purposes, are willing to ignore the fact that nearly 25,000 students are trapped in failing MPS schools. When are they going to show real concern for those students, as I have for the last 18 years of writing about public policy, instead of just drumming up fake outrage to try to silence any voice that calls for real educational reform in Milwaukee?

The tragedy here is that this shouldn’t be about me. It’s the MPS to prison pipeline that won’t be rectified by building new football stadiums. As an MPS graduate I find the embrace of the status quo disgusting. The soft bigotry of low expectations is more vile and more insidious than anything my critics have accused me of being.

Real students, mostly minorities, are being held captive in failing schools, including Milwaukee Vincent. Instead of prettifying the Potemkin buildings, we need to do more to improve the lives of the students in those schools. I stand by what I wrote: the African American, Hispanic and other minority children of MPS would be better off if failing schools were shut down rather than upgrading the athletic facilities.

Wigderson isn’t going to accept being called racist any more than I would. And it’s really revealing that all the reaction to what Wigderson originally wrote fails to address the fact that MPS is the worst school district in the state of Wisconsin, and dragging down Milwaukee and the entire state.

That doesn’t mean Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers doesn’t have an answer, though it is as predictable as the sun rising in the east tomorrow, reported by the Journal Sentinel:

State Superintendent Tony Evers is proposing sending millions of dollars more to the state’s largest school districts to help reduce the massive gaps in academic achievement between the districts’ students of color and their white counterparts.

First: The Journal Sentinel writer committed an error. Evers is the superintendent of public instruction, not the “state superintendent,” despite the DPI propaganda the reporter must have read.

Democrat Evers is challenging Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for a third term in a race that has been focused on the two state officials’ records on educational issues — including whether either have done enough to improve the state’s poor rate at which black students keep pace in the classroom.

One target of Evers’ plan is Milwaukee Public Schools, where about 80 percent of the 76,000 students are black and Hispanic and live in low-income households. Few districts in Wisconsin report worse academic performance than Milwaukee, where more than half the district’s schools are rated as meeting few or no expectations on the state report card.

Walker previously said he would by late summer or fall be making recommendations for Milwaukee schools, but on Tuesday his campaign could not say if Walker still planned to do so.

Under a plan released this week, Evers’ Department of Public Instruction would in the next state budget devote $13 million to programs designed to address struggling students’ performance in the classrooms of Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee and Racine, including:

  • $5 million in grants to expand summer school offerings.
  • $1.5 million set aside to provide $15,000 for each National Board Certified teacher who teaches in the five school districts.
  • $500,000 to expand principal training in urban settings for each of the five districts.
  • $5 million in new funding to provide kindergarten for 3-year-olds in the five-school district.
  • $1 million for a two-year project in each school district community to work with health care providers around childhood trauma and with housing agencies to stabilize living situations for children, while improving staff-to-child ratios in child care and educational settings.

DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said the recommendations were developed with input from the five districts and will be submitted as a budget request for the 2019-’21 state budget. He said the department hasn’t proposed the measures before because Walker had previously rejected other similar proposals.

Think the rural school districts that have complained about money going to private schools are going to complain about this money that could be going to other schools but instead will be sucked up by these five giant school districts?

 

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