By Tom Still

MILWAUKEE – As they prepare to elect a new mayor of Wisconsin’s largest city, voters have read and heard plenty about Acting Mayor Marvin Pratt’s campaign finances and Tom Barrett’s record as a member of Congress. What never emerged in the campaign was a real debate over how City Hall should deal with Milwaukee’s schools.

In most Wisconsin cities, city-school relations aren’t an issue: Local school boards and administrators manage the K-12 system and mayors and city councils oversee municipal affairs. In Milwaukee, the lines of political responsibility aren’t so neat. School performance – specifically, producing high-school graduates who can eventually succeed in today’s knowledge-based jobs – is essential to Milwaukee’s economic performance. A major city with the lowest African-American graduation rate in the United States cannot prosper. A city with the third largest achievement gap between white and minority students cannot move ahead.

And yet, there has been remarkably little debate about Milwaukee’s schools in a campaign that ends with Tuesday’s vote. To his credit, Barrett has tried. His speeches and web site have emphasized the link between education and economic and social progress. When asked by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel to summarize his stand on education in his own words, Barrett called for closer ties between the schools and City Hall – including making the superintendent an “ex-officio” member of the mayor’s cabinet. Conversely, it is difficult to find more than a passing reference to education in Pratt’s speeches or on his web site, and he declined to respond to the Journal-Sentinel’s invitation for an unfiltered response.

The result is that Milwaukee voters have missed a chance to gain new perspective on the performance of their schools. What’s working – and what’s not working? And why should the rest of Wisconsin care?

Milwaukee’s schools matter to Wisconsin because of the public investment in their operation and their eventual “products,” which are educated children. The Milwaukee Public Schools budget is about $1.1 billion for the current academic year, and 104,000 children are enrolled. The success of those children matters to a state economy which is already running short on the number of college-educated adults. If Milwaukee children merely graduated from high school and attended college at the statewide average, much of Wisconsin’s “human capital” deficit would be erased. Instead, the state is struggling to move those students ahead – and it costs everyone, whether they live in northern Wisconsin or on Milwaukee’s North Side.

There is some cause for optimism. Michael Butera, the executive director of Wisconsin’s statewide teachers’ union, believes the groundwork is being laid for improved performance. However, Butera cautions it will take time.

“It’s not purely an achievement gap that must be closed. There’s a social gap, as well,” said Butera, who worked in largely urbanized states before coming to Wisconsin.

He explained that many Milwaukee kids don’t come to school ready to learn, and the reasons vary from a lack of nutrition and health care to little support at home. He believes the statewide SAGE program, which creates smaller class sizes and more individual attention for K-3 students in economically poor schools, is already showing results. But it will take time for those students to reach high school.

“Graduation rates probably won’t improve for a while, but SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) is working. It is creating more social capital. I am optimistic about what we’re doing in the elementary schools,” Butera said.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee teachers are doing more to work with their colleagues – mentoring and counseling young teachers, and sometimes weeding out those who aren’t cut out for the profession. Special math and literacy initiatives are also gaining a toehold.

Success for Milwaukee’s schools cannot be secured by teachers and administrators alone, however. It will require partnerships with business and government, including City Hall. It’s too bad the voters weren’t exposed to a more vigorous exchange about what can and should happen under a new mayor.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.