By Bob Peterson May 15, 2015
During my 30 years of teaching fifth grade, I’ve always encouraged my students to look critically at problems and to learn from mistakes.
Sen. Alberta Darling’s and Rep. Dale Kooyenga’s plan to take over public schools in Milwaukee does neither.
The few details in their plan provide no framework for actually improving academic achievement. Equally important, the plan ignores the Milwaukee community’s experience with similar efforts to dismantle our public schools and undermine our democratic institutions.
There are several glaring problems with the Darling-Kooyenga plan.
■Not learning from mistakes. Attempting to improve public schools by turning them over to private charter or voucher operators has been tried before — and failed. For 25 years, vouchers have been a conservative’s dream: no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations. What has been the result? Voucher schools on the whole perform worse academically than the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Voucher schools have drained over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money away from public schools and into private schools with little public accountability. The defunding of public schools has meant larger class sizes, less individual attention to students and greatly reduced access to art, music, libraries and physical education within Milwaukee’s public schools. Let’s fully fund our public schools and fix them, not abandon them.
■Undermines democracy. Governance is not the problem with our schools — Milwaukee arguably has more governance options than any urban system in the country. The rhetoric around governance in the Darling- Kooyenga scheme is a smokescreen to get rid of democratically elected and accountable school boards and schools.
There are two ways to undermine democracy. First, by attacking voter rights through limiting early voting options and requiring photo IDs. Another way is to remove entire institutions from democratic control. Yes, democracy can be messy, but the alternative is worse. If we decide to abandon every democratic institution that is not up to our hopes and dreams, why not get rid of the U.S. Congress? Or the Wisconsin Legislature?
■Part of a coordinated attack. The Darling-Kooyenga plan can’t be viewed in isolation. It’s in the context of Walker’s budget that continues deep cuts in public education across the state, and increases statewide privatization of public schools. In addition, Walker’s budget eliminates Chapter 220 — the only educational program in Milwaukee designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color.
■Exacerbates inequality. Data show that privately run charter and voucher schools serve significantly fewer students with special needs, English language learners and more difficult to educate students. Students are counseled out and pushed back into public schools. The Kooyenga-Darling plan will only increase this problem.
■Refusal to learn from other urban areas. Other urban districts have tried similar takeovers, with disastrous results. A takeover plan in Detroit is costing the state $72 million, with the mayor raising strong objections. In Memphis, several national charter operators have repeatedly proposed new schools, only to abruptly cancel their plans. And in New Orleans, thousands of students — including those with special needs — are being underserved. Let’s learn from, not replicate, the problems that have come up in these other cities.
■Continues Milwaukee’s plantation mentality. The plan’s colonial implications — what MICAH President Rev. Willy Brisco calls the “plantation” mentality that dominates social policy in Milwaukee — are disturbing. Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Brown decision that was fundamental to overthrowing Jim Crow segregation, noted that “separate is inherently unequal.” It should give people pause when two white suburban legislators propose having a white county executive appoint a “commissioner” to be able to pluck schools away from the democratically elected school board of an overwhelmingly nonwhite district.
If we want to truly provide equal education opportunities, why not try something truly radical? Why not build a countywide school system — democratically elected and controlled and open to all children, regardless of the ZIP code where they were born? Not only would this open up well-funded schools with excellent opportunities and learning conditions to the children of Milwaukee, it would attack the dual problems of segregation and inequality that plague our region.
■Sending the wrong message to our children. What message do we send to the next generation when we condone a plan to remove control of public institutions from a democratically elected board? When we undermine a superintendent with a doctorate from Harvard University and instead place public schools in the hands of a “commissioner” to be appointed by a county executive who doesn’t even have a college degree and was not elected to run schools? When we allow a plan that specifically says the children of Milwaukee do not need licensed teachers?
These are just some of the many problems in the Darling-Kooyenga plan.
This proposal should be rejected by anyone who believes in democracy and the importance of educating all children.
The Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all our students.
Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and of our future. Let’s unite to support and improve our public schools, not abandon them.
Bob Peterson is president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. He has taught 5th grade in MPS for 30 years.