Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.
The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.
In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.
TJ Mertz, an Edgewood College history instructor and education blogger, is running unopposed after Sarah Manski dropped out of the race for Seat 5 following the February primary. Her name will appear on the ballot, but she is moving to California. Mertz will replace retiring school board member Maya Cole.
In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.
This week, we ask the candidates about where they think incoming superintendent Jennifer Cheatham should direct her attention. We also ask about the changes in collective bargaining wrought by Act 10: How have they affected the district, and how should it respond to this new policy?
What should the priorities be for new Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham?
Months ago, a board member asked me what I thought was the most important quality in a superintendent. I answered that our new superintendent should be able to create and practice trust. Progress in the challenges our district faces -- beginning with gaps in opportunity and achievement -- depends on trust among district staff at all levels, the board, parents and students, and community members.
The good news is that I think Jennifer Cheatham understands the importance of trust. I am currently reading her doctoral papers on creating and sustaining "communities of practice." She writes about the importance of "collaborative cultures." Collaboration requires and enhances trust. Her work is on relationships among central office and school-based staff, but the ideas can and should be extended to include all involved with our schools.
Cheatham also writes about "the de-privatization of practice," what I would call openness and forthrightness. These are crucial to trust, and must extend beyond district staff. The processes of decision-making need to be transparent and inclusive (cornerstones of collaboration), and the rationales for recommendations or practices should acknowledge limitations and include alternatives. We need to trust the professional insights from our superintendent, but also to see that there is trust and respect for the knowledge of those who have been working to improve education in Madison.
Showing respect involves learning about and striving to build on what is currently working in our district while changing what is not. In the months ahead, Madison will wrestle with alignment to the Common Core standards, new state assessments, a deeply flawed accountability system, a new educator evaluation system, and other state and federal mandates. As Cheatham observes, mandates can "conflict" with "local priorities" and "undermine...instructional improvement." Historian David Tyack (who Cheatham cites) calls for a "Conservationist Ethic in Education" and reminds us that, "In reform circles enamored of change and inclined toward Utopian solutions to improve schooling, a belief in progress can obscure the task of conserving the good along with inventing the new." Conserving the good, as we seek to do better, should be a priority.
How has Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law affected the district, and how should its policies proceed in this new environment?
The effects of Scott Walker's collective bargaining law cannot be seen in isolation from the larger campaign to undermine public education and the public sphere. This campaign continues with state and national policies and proposals, including Walker's recent budget provisions.
The attempt to disempower teachers unions, cuts to education budgets, misguided accountability systems that don't account for student demographics, overreliance on standardized tests, competition-based policies, and other underresearched initiatives have made it increasingly hard for public schools and educators to do their jobs.
In the MMSD, the situation is complicated. The union contracts for our staff were extended under great pressures, resulting in flat pay scales and cuts in take-home pay for many (due to increased benefit contributions). The attacks on schools, educators and their unions have also had contradictory effects on staff morale. Many feel frustrated, underappreciated and distrustful.
At the same time, the mobilization in response to Walker's actions inspired ongoing efforts by educators and others on behalf of our schools and our community. The powerlessness people felt as Walker's measures were enacted led many to seek ways to empower themselves and others. Along with MTI members and others, I have been part of a volunteer program called Community First. We have visited homes, knocked on every door in underserved neighborhoods, registered and educated voters on their rights, organized on local issues, and built capacity by forming connections in the community. Initiatives like this didn't start with Walker, but Walker brought new people and new urgency to the work.
As a community, we must continue to set a counterexample. Instead of weakening the collective voice of our staff, we need to respect and strengthen it. Instead of cutting investments and opportunities for our students, we need to enhance and improve them. In Madison we have the means, the will, and the responsibility to show that in a socio-economically diverse community, public education can live up to its promises to create opportunities for individuals, strengthen our community, and build a better future for all our children. Walker's way is not the way to accomplish this mission.