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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Paper
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Community members are at each other's throats after the Madison school board catastrophe

Sarah Manski did a lot of damage to Madison on her way out of town.

When she won the school board primary, sucking up endorsements from prominent local officials - apparently knowing all the while that she might not be hanging around to sit on the board - she did a major disservice to our community. As Madison Times editor A. David Dahmer observed, her highhanded use of the school board seat as a "backup plan" smacks of contempt for the people who care deeply about what is happening in our schools. Those people happen to include both of Manski's opponents: school-policy blogger and educator TJ Mertz and Ananda Mirilli, a longtime advocate for Madison youth who's on the board of the Spanish immersion charter school Nuestro Mundo.

Since Manski withdrew after she won the primary, her name - and not third-place finisher Mirilli's - will appear on the ballot. That has convinced a lot of people of color that white liberals, including school board member Marj Passman, deliberately colluded to keep a woman of color off the board.

Passman denies Manksi's public claim that she told Manski the board would just install "someone good" if Manski dropped out (and why on earth would Manski say that, anyway?). It was a big bombshell, because a lot of people of color are already highly suspicious of white, liberal officials like Passman, who opposed the Urban League's plan for a single-sex academy for kids of color, Madison Prep.

Manski unfairly painted Mirilli as a tool of the right-wing drive to privatize public schools. One campaign email described Mirilli as "a supporter of using public tax dollars to fund private schools. She was recruited by the former head of a Bradley Foundation-funded group that promotes the corporate takeover of public education." Read: Kaleem Caire of the Urban League, who has worked with conservative school choice groups and once vowed to oust opponents of Madison Prep after his plan was voted down.

Both sides are wrong about their worst conspiracy fears. Mirilli is a sincere and independent advocate for kids, not a tool of the right. And, contrary to a lot of commenters on Facebook and, Marj Passman, TJ Mertz, John Nichols and teachers union director John Matthews did not hatch a plan to keep black and brown people down during secret meetings in the organic produce aisle at the Willy Street Co-op.

But Dahmer's biting editorial in the Madison Times is dead right: White progressives in Madison need to start listening to, and respecting, what parents of color are trying to tell us. And we need to get outside the self-reinforcing box of our own political correctness.

Face it: We are, despite our crunchy image, a horribly segregated city.

We have a yawning achievement gap in part because there is not much of a black middle class, and a disproportionate share of kids of color in our city are economically disadvantaged. But there is also plain old racism.

Among the underserved kids in our schools are:

  • The good-natured little African American boy described as "aggressive" by his teacher for behavior that, in a white kid, looks playful and benign.
  • The smart black girl whose parents are infuriated when they have to go to school to argue that, no, she does not belong in special ed.
  • The highly educated Latino family whose brilliant daughter is flagged "at risk" because she speaks two languages fluently, while her classmates speak only one.

Telling parents who have had these experiences, and who are attracted to Caire's passionate pitch for a charter school that would address their kids' needs, that Caire is a tool because he took money from the Bradley Foundation and other conservative school choice groups is about as persuasive as telling them that UFOs might land in their backyard.

The fact that parents and teachers and people of good will in our community are having such a hard time communicating is particularly lousy because there really is a right-wing effort to destroy our public schools. And that is going to make fixing Madison's achievement gap a lot harder.

Big bucks are flowing into our state to fund politicians who back unregulated charter and voucher schools that will drain money from public education. If Gov. Scott Walker gets his way, Madison will become a voucher school zone.

Racine suffered through Walker's voucher expansion last year, and guess who benefited? Fully half of the tax dollars siphoned out of the public schools went to parents who were already sending their kids to private academies.

Walker's plan is to lift the income cap for vouchers and funnel more money to wealthy suburban schools that score well on statewide tests, while penalizing the schools whose students don't score as well. That will punish the kids who need the most from us and benefit the families who need the least.

Sarah Manski understood all this. She was right about the big picture of the assault on public education generally. But she was terribly wrong about the local politics.

And if we are going to do anything about the crisis in education in Madison, we are going to have to start talking to each other and building trust on a very local level.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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