Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Poaching is for eggs, not businesses and schools

By Barbara Miner
I always appreciate it when a news article sends me to the dictionary to catch the nuances of a word. And today’s word is “poach.”
I am well familiar with poached eggs — a Sunday treat. I knew there was another definition, and I tried to remember when I first associated poaching with the lords of England arresting peasants for hunting rabbits on their lordly lands. I think it was during the Robin Hood TV series from the 1950s.
The Oxford English Dictionary has this as one of several definitions for poach: “To filch (an advantage, e.g., at the start of a race) by unfair means.” My Webster’s dictionary includes the definition: “to take (anything) by unfair or illegal methods; steal.”
Today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, which summarized a forum Tuesday at Marquette University on cooperation between the Milwaukee and Chicago regions, talked about poaching more than just small animals. Entire companies were at stake.
Some at the conference rebranded poaching as free-market competition. Others saw it as narrow parochialism that will keep Milwaukee trapped in the 19th Century.
The forum, based on a report by a global economic think tank in Paris, focused on the need to bolster collaboration with our neighbor to the south if Milwaukee is to be a player in the global market.
Interestingly, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s on-line report on the forum has the headline “Chicago-Milwaukee megacity embraced.” The print copy says “Megacity idea gets discussion.” The actual article, in both versions, makes clear that several key business leaders in Wisconsin weren’t into embracing or cooperating with those FIB’s. Instead, they touted the benefits of poaching and scurrying across the state line to Wisconsin, beyond the reach of the lords of Illinois.
So much for Milwaukee’s business leaders welcoming the future. But then, they were mum when Gov. Scott Walker rejected almost a billion dollars in federal monies for high-speed rail.
I sat down to write this blog not because of Wisconsin’s fondness for poaching small businesses from Illinois. The poaching that I find most interesting involves schools.
To see the connection between poaching and schools, go back to Sunday’s article explaining the forum. It notes the inefficiencies, jurisdictional rivalries and fragmentation of the many governmental entities in the Milwaukee-Chicago area — especially when compared to other mega-regions such as Greater London or Greater Toronto. This fragmentation, in turn, hampers the strategic thinking needed in today’s global world.
A graph acccompanying the article noted there are 453 school districts in the Milwaukee-Chicago metro region, dwarfing all other governmental entities, from villages to townships, cities and counties. (Greater London, with a population of around 8 million people, has only 34 school districts.)
In schools, as in economic development, Milwaukee leaders seem disturbingly content with poaching rather than collaborating and cooperating. As a result, everyone loves to talk about open enrollment, or vouchers, or charters, and all sorts of mechanisms whereby schools are encouraged to poach good students and get those great test scores. “Bad” schools and districts, well they just need to learn to compete better so they are not left with the dregs.
Bring up the idea of metropolitan-wide school redistricting in order to ensure that the Milwaukee region work together to ensure a quality education for all children, and all hell will break lose. I guarantee it.
It certainly did a generation ago when then-legislator Dennis Conta proposed a modest redistricting plan. The proposal surfaced about a year before the federal courts ruled that the Milwaukee School Board had unconstitutionally segregated the public schools. No one knew if the courts might embrace a regional solution to segregation— the suburbs’ worst fear. Conta proposed a small experiment that would promote integration and merge a few Milwaukee schools with Shorewood and Whitefish Bay.
A public meeting to discuss Conta’s proposal attracted 1,000 people, most of them white suburbanites and most of them adamantly opposed. F. James Sensenbrenner, then a state representative and now a congressman, told the audience that the redistricting plan “is using children as pawns for some social technician’s wild eyed scheme.” A Jan. 14, 1975 Milwaukee Journal report said that Sensenbrenner “was loudly applauded.”
Conta’s plan never survived, nor did future proposals to prevent hypersegregation in our public schools. Instead, the suburbs preferred voluntary plans they could control, from Chapter 220 to open enrollment.
Further fragmenting education, the state legislature has championed publicly funded vouchers for private schools and charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Sunday’s graph on governmental fragmentation looked at school districts. If it had included voucher and charter schools, which operate as discrete entities and are often run by private groups that shun public transparency, the results would have been mind-boggling.
School district boundaries in the Milwaukee region are treated as sacred formations. But, as with other governmental configurations, they are made by man, not God. Look at Wisconsin’s history and you will see that when the purposes and scope of education changed, or when districts were too small to provide a range of opportunities, redistricting was common.
In the mid-1930s, for instance, Wisconsin had 7,777 school districts. By changing boundaries, the number of districts had dropped to only 498 districts in 1967.
Any talk of school redistricting in Milwaukee, however, runs into that third rail of the region’s politics: race.
Instead of protecting and promoting the state constitution’s guarantee of school districts “as nearly uniform as practicable,” the region’s powerbrokers have preferred free-market principles of everyone for themselves — every family, every school, every charter, every district.
Some might consider it healthy competition in action. Some might consider it a poaching mentality. Either way, it’s shortsighted and undermines the common good.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

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