Take away the glasses, and Madison Schools Superintendent Art Rainwater bears a passing resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian whose tag line was, "I don't get no respect."
The Madison Metropolitan School District has compiled an impressive record of student achievement through the years and has shown heartening progress in reducing the racial performance gap - a gap that has been documented in many districts across the land. But despite this, Rainwater has faced an increasingly restive constituency and a growing public perception, justified or not, that Madison schools are in decline.
Rainwater does get a lot of respect from some quarters, where his ability to steer the school district through some trying times is appreciated. By now we all know that legislative fiat has hampered the ability of local school districts to fund themselves. And the federal government's No Child Left Behind initiative has further narrowed the district's latitude for self-determination. Local schools aren't quite as local as they used to be.
Still, there's a strong tendency for voters to place the blame for perceived shortcomings on the local administration, Rainwater and his staff, with some more ire thrown the way of teachers unions. This message started to come home in the spring elections of 2005, when two out of three bond issues floated by the district were defeated, a shocking outcome in a district that theretofore had been willing to pay any price for educational excellence. The results highlighted a growing lack of trust in the district's administration. In the school board elections of 2006, a slate of "insurgent" candidates had significant success; some of them are now working on a reconstituted board, a further sign of changing times in school-community relations.
Our cover story this week, "Chartering Change," sees some optimism in the promise of charter schools to change, if not actual performance, at least public support of public schools. Our schools correspondent, Jason Shepard, sees greater experimentation as a possible answer to the dissatisfaction with present policy.
Schools are the most important element in maintaining the fabric of our society. Here's hoping that we come up with the proper solutions to the greatest challenge our schools are facing - the changing demographics of a developing city.