by Joseph L. Davis
As a nearly 50 year resident of Madison, I have been disturbed by the obvious dissonance between this city’s self-satisfaction as a bastion of all things good and liberal and the failure to respond, with more than band-aid measures, to the obvious dysfunction in our K-12 schools, including the persistent problem of minority underachievement (check out the report of a few months back issued by Justified Anger). I thought it was time to say something.
In the late summer of 2010 Kaleem Claire (then President of the Madison Urban League), prompted by frustration with the achievement deficit and poor graduation rates among his community’s children, proposed the creation of Madison Preparatory Academy for Young Men (Madison Prep). Where he saw this option as a lifeboat, others saw it as a declaration of war on the Madison schools, teachers and public education generally. The proposal got nowhere as the powers that be felt oh-so comfortable dismissing his plea and making it clear that they knew what was best for people of color. Even worse, opponents of his idea scapegoated him (in a guilty-by-association campaign worthy of Joe McCarthy) – they labeled him a stooge for the Koch brothers and their fellow travelers.
Roughly a year later, The Capital Times reported on the ongoing battle: “With Madison Prep advocates [believing] that the School Board and Madison’s left are overly influenced by the city’s teachers union and [appear] . . . more concerned about those union educators than struggling minority children. On the other side are . . . skeptics . . . wary of Caire’s ties to conservative institutional funders who typically oppose public education.”
So, the local fight got pulled into the victor-less ideology-driven national fight, compounded with the passage of Act 10. Opponents of the proposed Prep Academy talked about using the skeleton of the proposal to begin to address mutually acknowledged problems, but little happened – the debate devolved into a fight between the forces of good and evil, which was which depending on where you stood. But, it shouldn’t and oughtn’t be a fight about teachers, or public education, or the proper role of governments – the issue is about kids, it’s about helping kids succeed.
When minorities see a problem, the white establishment cannot just cavalierly ignore their concern, dismiss their ideas and side-step a response. What exactly is wrong with thinking outside the box to give learning options to poor minority kids? Privileged parents do it to take care of their kids and no one says a thing. Why have Madison Country Day School and the sainted Wingra School gotten a pass for decades?
There are really only two responsible choices for Madison – two ways to go to give minority kids in this community a leg up: real reform inside the system, or tackling the problem outside the system. For decades, nearly since the nation’s inception, universal public education has held America together – it’s been the ticket to a better life. This was true for generations of immigrant kids and farm kids and working-class kids. The schools made that happen, and great teachers made that happen. But lately, it’s become fashionable and acceptable to punt the problem, to hand off the hard work. We so frequently now hear excuses: Society’s values are compromised, poverty and crime are endemic, kids are too damaged, families aren’t supportive, the learning environment in schools is hopeless, and on and on.
Yes, that is surely all true to one degree or another for too many of today’s kids – but, when wasn’t it true? You know, this nation’s vaunted “Greatest Generation” did not start out so great. Yes, today’s problems are big and challenging, but that doesn’t mean giving the schools a pass on doing their job. If the schools don’t do it, how can it get done? And, if dedicated and great teachers can’t do it, who will?
There’s a simple choice. First, we could establish a grade-defined Magnet School(s) under the MMSD umbrella. “Magnet schools are free public elementary and secondary schools of choice that are operated by school districts . . . Magnet schools have a focused theme and aligned curricula . . . [and] diversity is an important element.” Magnet Schools give a district flexibility to attract supplemental resources to pay for supportive and ancillary services. This is surely a win-win. The same holds true for public Charter School, inside the system of which we already have three and others like the Verona Area International School in Fitchburg and the Core Knowledge Charter School in Verona.
The other option is to go outside the system entirely and establish one or more independent Charter Schools operated by various institutions, including colleges [we have a few close by], major nonprofits and groups of concerned parents – the attraction here is the chance for major national funding. We have ample models from which to choose for all available options and plenty of support to get things off the ground.
Some might ask where I get off raising this issue, let alone writing about it. Well, here’s why: My life has been book-ended by two best friends. The first was James, a Black boy, when we were 5 or 6 – he moved away and at that age who knows last names? Never saw him again – never forgot him. The second was Lamar Billups, an accomplished public servant who became a brother and a godfather to my daughter. We lost Lamar too soon and I know were he alive, I wouldn’t have had to write this piece. He would have – no, check that – we’d already be down the reform road. So, I am paying a debt to two people who helped make me who I am – I am paying a debt to them and for me.
Madison, it is time to do something, together. Finally.