Much to its credit, the Madison school board has mostly ignored the March 2007 recommendations of the district's Equity Task Force. This earnest but unhelpful committee delved into the abstractions of what distinguishes "equity" from "equality," how the board might commit to equity and what esoteric guidelines could measure that commitment.
If you are already slipping into catatonia from the meaningless rattle of words, that's understandable. This is stuff that appeals to progressive professors at the UW-Madison School of Education and to graduate students who aspire to become progressive professors at the UW-Madison School of Education.
"Equity," the committee announced in its report to the board, "involves opportunity; access; elimination of barriers; distribution of resources; protection of specific groups; recognition and acceptance of differences" and marches on for another 75 words in an act of faux definition.
The more it seeks to explain itself, the more suspect the whole equity endeavor becomes. As someone who sat through a meeting at East High last year where the task force's work was explained to baffled parents (we filled out a survey that asked, "What does the definition of equity mean to you?") and who then watched a poorly attended forum discuss the task force's findings at Centro Hispano on April 3, all I can ask is:
What is it about progressives and their penchant to champion programs on the basis of their rhetorical gloss rather than their success, or at least their prospects for success?
The Madison schools face a real problem in the achievement gap that separates white students from minority students, poor students from middle-class students.
I can't think of a bigger challenge for this community than to get these kids up to grade level before they get lost in the hormones and peer pressure of middle and high school.
These are the kids who drop out, who lack the skills to hold jobs, who run the risks of drugs and alcohol, who break the law, who shatter neighborhood comity, who get busted.
Call me naive, but I think most Madisonians are prepared to give these troubled kids extra help. They might volunteer their own time in the Schools of Hope program to tutor struggling readers. They might support raising taxes to fund four-year-old kindergarten or other programs designed to rescue kids from a dreadful fate.
This point needs to be emphasized. Madisonians aren't afraid to tax themselves. They just want good services in return and know that their money isn't being wasted.
But I can't for the life of me see them rallying around a pompous and abstruse equity policy, especially one that reads like it was formulated by the UW Department of Leftwing Social Engineering. (Example: "Equity will come about when we raise a generation of children tolerant of differences and engaged in their democracy to stop the processes leading to inequity.")
The school board, after a suitable 14-month delay, should politely shelve the task force's recommendations when it finally gets around to voting on them in May.
Equity can be honored in principle, but in practice the board needs to be laser-focused on the practicalities of closing the achievement gap. Too often Madison's libs and progs devote themselves to elaborate exercises in policy-making as if policy is an end in itself.
The city's Inclusionary Zoning program is another case in point.
IZ is a perfect example of how protecting their mighty edifice of policy becomes more important for libs and progs than the actual performance of the program.
Inclusionary zoning - now four years old - has come nowhere close to producing the annual crop of 200 to 300 affordable housing units across the city that the proponents confidently predicted.
This failure has only exacerbated the school board's challenge in dealing with the achievement gap. The research is crystal clear: Kids in high-poverty schools fare far worse academically than poor kids attending middle-class schools.
So the schools' work is made far harder by the concentrations of poverty that we see in the Madison metropolitan community.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, as evidenced by his recent "state of the city" address, understands the connection. The question is, does Mayor Dave get it enough to formulate a housing policy that might actually produce widely dispersed affordable housing?
His speech was notable because he acknowledged the connection of high poverty levels to poor school performance, and he rightly argued that the provision of low-income housing should not be a Madison duty, but a regional one.
To that end, the mayor provocatively called for the merger of the county and Madison housing authorities. He also offered to use the city's housing trust fund for projects across the county. So far so good.
The problem is that Cieslewicz stubbornly remains wedded to IZ and intends to sponsor its renewal when the program expires in January 2009. This despite the fact that the recent IZ staff report - long, dull and packed with data - confirms what's already known: In four years, only 18 IZ units have been occupied, while another 51 have accepted offers to purchase.
Even more telling, the program was effectively gutted in 2006 when the courts struck down its dictates for affordable apartments. Question: How smart is it for the centerpiece of the city's housing strategy to not deal with rental units? Not very.
But Ald. Brenda Konkel probably caught the prevailing vibe at city hall when she headlined her post on the IZ report with the casual summary: "Inclusionary Zoning Didn't Ruin the World."
The fact that it produced very little housing in four years and wasted a tremendous amount of staff time in its formulation seems beside the point. Hey, Madison has an inclusionary zoning program!
City hall, like the school board, needs to be focused on results rather than posturing. At the moment, I think the school board understands the distinction best. But, then again, its members deal directly with the most important issues in the community.