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Welcome, You Bum

Jan. 27, 2010
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Looked at rationally, Gregory Thornton, Ph.D., the newly chosen superintendent who will take over the leadership of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), should have overwhelming support to begin reforming the state’s largest urban school district.

Thornton topped the list of applicants in a nationwide search conducted by a professional educational recruiting firm that has filled leadership positions in many of the major school districts around the country. The Milwaukee School Board, under the leadership of Michael Bonds, overcame decades of quarrelsome divisiveness between competing factions to vote unanimously for Thornton, 9-0.

On top of that, two of the most important political leaders in the state, Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, both say they want to put the power of their offices behind improving Milwaukee schools.

So much for rationality, though.

One only had to read the attack on Thornton in the opening paragraph of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about his selection to realize not everybody is ready to get behind Thornton’s efforts to raise educational achievement in MPS.

Quote: “The Milwaukee School Board voted unanimously Friday to elect Philadelphia native Gregory Thornton as the next superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, despite the candidate’s history of personal bankruptcy and questions that have been raised about his ethics.”

In other words, “Welcome to Milwaukee, you bum.”

What terrible scandal did the Journal Sentinel unearth to turn a news story on the unanimous selection of a highly qualified professional for the toughest education job in the state into an editorial attack? Absolutely none.

Thornton does not have a “history” of personal bankruptcy. He filed for bankruptcy once back in 1997 after he opened a restaurant that failed, “trying to live the American dream of being an entrepreneur,” he said.

Failing in a small business (which had nothing to do with Thornton’s work as an educator) can hardly be interpreted as evidence of either moral or professional failing.

What about any so-called questions about Thornton’s ethics? The Journal Sentinel reported nothing to substantiate those charges either.

Before Thornton was chosen for the No. 2 position in Philadelphia public schools, he took a trip to Africa with the National Alliance of Black School Educators. The trip was partially paid for by an educational company called Plato Learning Inc.

Later, after Thornton was in Philadelphia, Plato Learning got a contract there, but former Philadelphia Superintendent Paul Vallas, who praised Thornton’s work, said Thornton was not the school official responsible for awarding the contract.

Far more relevant to winning the Milwaukee job was Thornton’s experience in Philadelphia helping to close the achievement gap between black and white children in one of the nation’s largest urban school districts. And the fact that when the state of Pennsylvania took over a low-performing school district in Chester, Pa., in 2007, Gov. Ed Rendell asked Thornton to take over the superintendent’s job to raise achievement levels, which he has done.

So what’s behind the crude attack on Thornton before he even comes to town?

Sadly, for those of us who still believe in journalistic standards, the Journal Sentinel is allowing its editorial support for Barrett’s attempt to take control of MPS to openly bias its news reporting.

The so-called “questions” about Thornton appeared Friday morning, the day the Milwaukee School Board was scheduled to choose the new superintendent. The story, under the misleading headline “MPS Finalists Have Checkered Pasts,” trashed the other two finalists as well with similar petty charges that had next to nothing to do with their professional qualifications.

The proposal Barrett and Doyle announced last August for Barrett to take control of MPS from the elected school board has never received widespread support in the community. On Jan. 5, when the Senate Education Committee held the Legislature’s only public hearing in Milwaukee on the proposed mayoral takeover, 20 speakers advocated mayoral control and 81 were opposed. Of those who registered for or against the takeover, 99 were in favor and 299 were opposed.

The Journal Sentinel dishonestly reported the next day that members of the public at the hearing “were fairly evenly divided.”

Because of the strong opposition in Milwaukee, the mayoral takeover is dead as a doornail, but Barrett, Doyle and the Journal Sentinel keep dragging it around in public like the corpse in the film Weekend at Bernie’s.

Thornton has diplomatically said he is willing to work with either the mayor or the elected school board to improve Milwaukee schools.

What remains to be seen is whether Barrett, Doyle and the Journal Sentinel are sincere about seeking improvements for MPS even if they can’t get their way about taking control.

The best way to demonstrate that would be to join the unanimous Milwaukee School Board in supporting a highly qualified new superintendent as he takes on the challenging job of reforming MPS and raising achievement.


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