Running for school board is cool again. Not only will all three seats in this spring's general election be contested, there will also be a primary election for the first time since 2007. TJ Mertz, Ananda Mirilli and Sarah Manski will compete in the Feb. 19 primary for the seat of retiring board member Maya Cole.
The three candidates argue that the Madison school board has never been more important. Board members must confront the threats and challenges facing our public schools, from budget cuts to privatization to the achievement gap.
"The attacks are coming from every direction - big broad attacks and subtle little attacks with changing how testing is done and changing how evaluations are done," says Mertz, 51, who teaches history at Edgewood College and has two children in Madison public schools.
Mertz, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for city council two years ago, touts his borderline obsessive involvement with education in Madison.
"I've attended probably over 200 school board meetings. I've read probably every school board and school board committee agenda for the last five years," he says.
Mertz has served on the district's equity task force, was co-chair of Community and Schools Together through the 2006 and 2008 referendum campaigns, and is active with Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, which works on state school funding issues. He also writes a well-known education blog, Advocating on Madison Public Schools, where he dissects all sorts of education issues, including one that's been in the spotlight of late - the achievement gap.
"Even using the phrase 'achievement gap' disguises the complexity," Mertz says. "I always say 'achievement gaps' because there's a very different experience for, say, a child of Hmong background who comes from an impoverished family...than for a Latino child who comes from an upper-class family. There are gaps that we need to address, and struggles and challenges associated with each, but they're not the same. And simply to say 'achievement gap' keeps us from doing the kind of fine-grained, difficult targeting of different programs to different issues that exist in our district."
But Mertz insists that closing the gaps in achievement between white students and students of color is possible, even under the strain of historic state budget cuts.
"We have to keep trying. We need better evaluations of programs to make sure we're targeting our money better; we need a better budgeting process to help us do that," he says, adding that district officials haven't been keeping their eye on the ball when it comes to achievement.
"The attention of our district and districts around the state was on how to make the cuts that do the least harm, and we have a good 10- to 12-year period where almost nobody was talking about improving education. The brain power and energy of administrators, the school board and the community is fighting cuts instead of looking to do better."
'This is about all of us'
Ananda Mirilli agrees that we can't afford to wait to tackle the disparities in achievement that have plagued the district.
"We're at the point that our city and our county is going to suffer. It's not only a school issue, it's not only an education issue, it's a community-wide issue," she says. "This is not only about brown/black folks in our district. This is about all of us - if you have homes in the district, if you want to live in the district, if you have a business in the district."
Born in Brazil, Mirilli, 35, has lived in Madison for eight years. She works with kids and schools as manager of the YWCA restorative justice program. The program offers alternative strategies for troubled kids who are traditionally disciplined with suspensions and behavior referrals. Mirilli says kicking kids out of school when they get into trouble just doesn't make sense.
"We can have the best academic curriculum, but if students are not in the classroom, or not connected with the classroom, or not connected with their academic development, it's really difficult to do anything else," she says.
But Mirilli says it's not her job that piqued her interest in running for school board. It's her role as a parent. She has a daughter in fourth grade at Nuestro Mundo Community School.
"The current state of being polarized on so many issues [ends] up paralyzing us to move forward, to have a dialogue," she says. "As a parent, I worry a lot that the message students are getting at a very early age [about] the climate of the schools is not always positive."
Mirilli says she sat in on many listening sessions as the school district put together its achievement-gap plan, and she believes the plan offers a good starting point. But she would also like the district to focus on what's working now.
"We have successful parental-involvement programs in our schools. We have successful classrooms that have closed the gap. What we don't have is a process to...bring folks who are doing the work, the good work, to the table."
Unlike her two opponents, Sarah Manski doesn't believe the achievement gap is the biggest issue facing Madison public schools. It's privatization.
"Our Legislature has said that it is one of their top agendas to expand private charter schools in the state - schools that don't have union employees and have very little oversight. These schools are funded by defunding public schools and using taxpayer dollars. And that's wrong."
She admits she's not sure what the Legislature has in store for public education this session, but she doesn't see much good news on the horizon.
"I'm in this race because I want to protect our public schools against attacks that happened last year and are going to continue and intensify through increasing privatization and attacks on the teachers union," she says.
Manski says part of the reason Wisconsin has been facing such attacks is its progressive legacy.
"We had the first kindergarten in the nation. We're a leader in education policy and practices. I want to work to protect Wisconsin's progressive tradition."
Manski agrees that the achievement gap is important, but she insists the best way to fight it is with more funding for public schools.
"We can hire more teachers, attract a diversity of teaching staff, and fund programs that are working in schools to close the achievement gap," she says, pointing to AVID/TOPS as an example of a program that has been successful. Run jointly through the district and Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, the program offers tutoring, mentorships and classroom work to help students in the academic middle graduate and eventually enroll in college.
Manski says the district also needs to start addressing social inequality issues and focus more on programs that directly affect kids in poverty, including free and subsidized meals.
A coalition builder, Manski says she's ready to bring together students, teachers and community members to fight the "privatization agenda" that she believes is lurking in districts across the state.
"I think the people of Madison and the whole school district support strong, fully funded, integrated public schools."