Madison East Students Take Sen. Ron Johnson to School on Vouchers

Madison East Students Take Ron Johnson to School on Vouchers, Betsy DeVos from MTEA Union on Vimeo.

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson has been avoiding constituents since the election of Donald Trump, so he probably thought he could handle some Madison East High School students, but boy was he wrong!

In the nearly 45 –minute Thursday question and answer session, recorded on social media by a student in the audience, Johnson was grilled on his views on public education and an array of other issues. His answers and interactions show just how uninformed his views on public education are and just how brilliant and amazing Wisconsin students are.

The exchange began when Madison East student, Lydia Hester, walked up to the microphone and asked Johnson:

I’m a freshman here at East. I’d like to know how you feel about privatizing schools? How you are able to be here and say that you want to help students when you voted for Betsy DeVos, who has no experience with public schools? DeVos has been pushing for “school choice” for twenty years. This is creating charter schools that replace public schools. Public schools are losing their funding from voucher schools. Public schools are being forced to shut down in Milwaukee. How can you say this will help us?

Johnson responds by telling the students voucher schools offer students a “golden ticket” out of “failing schools,” telling students they needed to watch a one-sided movie that touts corporate education reform, which has exacerbated the condition of public schools. Perhaps Johnson’s campaign donations from school privatizers have clouded his views on this issue. Research (link) continues to show that students in voucher and private charter schools perform no better than students in public schools. As public funds are diverted to the private voucher schools Johnson praises, public school budgets shrink.

Just recently news broke in Milwaukee that a charter school, Universal Academy, abruptly closed its doors on a third school in the city in six months, leaving Milwaukee Public Schools and Wisconsin taxpayers with a nearly $1 million dollar tab. Now families, students, and educators are being forced to scramble and pick up the pieces in the middle of the school year.

Another student followed by comparing Johnson’s earlier remarks about stabilizing the situation in Syria to first stabilizing Wisconsin public schools before experimenting with other reforms:

Earlier in the talk you talked how the solution for refugees (Syria) was to stabilize the area that they’re coming from rather than bringing more here. We could kind of use that as a parallel to what you were just saying about school choice. To say that we can’t all mobilize and leave our places of origin, which is what the refugees want to do, we need to stabilize the situation here so I don’t understand how you can have the two reversed views.

Vouchers have been a destabilizing force for families and public schools in this city for decades. Fly-by-night private schools closing down have become commonplace in Milwaukee and other places that unaccountable vouchers have sunk their roots in. Over fifty voucher schools have closed their doors in Milwaukee, costing taxpayers over a hundred million dollars!

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Graphic from a 2015 blog, when another failed voucher school, Daughters of the Father went under leaving families and MPS in a lurch. Other vouchers schools have failed since.

Finally a third student asked this brilliant question that Johnson handled about as well as Betsy DeVos did in her Senate confirmation hearing:

Do you think we should use standards of proficiency or standards of growth to measure student achievement, especially in relation to English classes which aren’t as straight-forwardly graded as math classes and why?

Johnson’s response:

You’re getting into some pretty esoteric educational pedagogy and I’m not an educator, I’m an accountant, I’m a plastics manufacturer.

Again, why are these politicians, who know nothing about educational policy, playing educator? Johnson forgets to mention that MPS schools were producing great results for students of color up until school vouchers and private charters started diverting money nearly 25 years ago in Milwaukee, the birthplace of a voucher district. Johnson didn’t want to admit that MPS students receive thousands of dollars less in per pupil funding than nearby suburban students, or that legislation to take over a democratically elected school board had been forced upon Milwaukee residents.

Johnson may have thought he could school a bunch of high school students, but these public school students could see right through his lies.

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Photo credit: Joe Brusky

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What’s the Difference Between a Voucher, Charter, and Public School?

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The more the people of Milwaukee find out about the Takeover of MPS, the more concerns and questions they have. One question keeps being asked is: What’s the difference between a voucher, charter, and public school? This non-partisan report was published in 2012, and although some of the numbers have changed since 2012, it should help answer many of these questions for people.

Originally published in May 2012 by the non-partisan Democracy and Education Research Group.
Overview
In recent decades, there has been an expansion of the types of schools in Milwaukee receiving public tax dollars. In some areas, differences may seem slight. In other areas, there are significant differences. This is especially true in terms of students’ rights, public accountability, and democratic oversight.
There are three main types of schools in Milwaukee that receive public tax dollars:
Private voucher schools, charging tuition but also open to students who receive publicly funded vouchers.
Charter schools approved by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (aka 2R)
• Schools overseen by the Milwaukee Public Schools district.
The voucher schools, by definition, are private schools and do not have to follow the same rules as public schools. Most provide religious-based education and may charge tuition to private-paying students and, in some cases, to high school students receiving vouchers.
The charter schools approved by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee are considered public schools, but do not have to follow the same state rules, regulations and public oversight as traditional public schools. They are beholden to a “contract” (or charter), granted significant autonomy, and operate as independent entities. The schools are expected to provide greater academic results and innovation, although this has not necessarily happened in practice. Like all charter schools, they are non-religious and may not charge tuition. They are governed by privately appointed boards of directors.
The MPS district primarily oversees traditional public schools, including both neighborhood schools and a range of specialty schools and citywide schools, from language immersion to Montessori. The Milwaukee School Board also oversees charter schools that are part of the MPS but that have a specific “contract” or charter, often to provide a particular curricular focus. Finally, MPS oversees alternative and partnership schools. All MPS schools are non-religious and may not charge tuition. They are governed by the democratically elected Milwaukee School Board. Most MPS schools also have school based councils of parents, teachers and community members.

Details
Voucher schools
The biggest difference between voucher schools and charter and traditional schools is that, by definition, voucher schools are private schools and can provide religious-based instruction. There are approximately 22,300 students in Milwaukee receiving vouchers in the 2011-12 school year, mostly at religious schools. In 2011, for the first time Milwaukee students could attend a voucher school located outside the city.
While the voucher program initially began as an experiment promoting “choice” for poor people, a family of four with an income of $67,050 may now receive vouchers. The median family income in Milwaukee is $35,921.
Travis Academy was a voucher school in Milwaukee that was only recently shut down.

Travis Academy was a voucher school in Milwaukee that was only recently shut down.

Because they are private schools, voucher schools have limited public accountability and operate under different rules than public schools. For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s open meetings and records law. They do not have to provide information on staff qualifications, student suspensions and expulsions, graduation rates, and so forth to the public. Their meetings are not open to the public.

Voucher schools must accept students who require special education services, but they are not required to meet the students’ needs beyond what can be provided with minor adjustments. As a result, many students requiring special services leave voucher schools and attend a Milwaukee public schools. (Less than 2 percent of students in voucher schools are identified as receiving special education services, compared to about almost 20 percent in the Milwaukee Public Schools.)
In 2014, the state moved to terminate an underperforming private school from the Milwaukee voucher program that had operated for almost four years without accreditation — and received more than $1 million in taxpayer money during that time.

In 2014, the state moved to terminate an underperforming private school from the Milwaukee voucher program that had operated for almost four years without accreditation — and received more than $1 million in taxpayer money during that time.

As private schools, voucher schools do not have to honor constitutional rights of due process when students are suspended or expelled. Nor do private voucher schools have to follow Wisconsin law that prohibits discrimination against students in a range of areas including, sex, pregnancy, marital or parental status, or sexual orientation. Voucher schools, however, must follow federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.


Charter schools overseen by the City of Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Math & Science Academy has has several affiliates recently raided by the F.B.I.

The city of Milwaukee 2R City Charter Milwaukee Math & Science Academy has has several affiliates recently raided by the F.B.I.

There are seven schools chartered by the City of Milwaukee and 11 schools chartered by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The schools enrolled a total of approximately 6,500 students in 2011-12. Information on the UWM charter schools can be found on the webpage of the Office of Charter Schools at UWM. Links on the website provide data such as the name of a particular charter school, its address, when it was chartered, and its email and school website. Detailed data on special education students, racial makeup, curricular offerings and so forth is not easily accessible via the website. A 62-page annual report from 2009-10 is available through the website. The report does not indicate who appoints the staff and leadership overseeing the Office of Charter Schools, nor when and if the office holds meetings open to the public.

Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is a 2R city of Milwaukee charter school. It operates outside the Milwaukee School Board and is instead accountable to a appointed board.

Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is a 2R city of Milwaukee charter school. It operates outside the Milwaukee School Board and is instead accountable to a appointed board.

The only data available on the City of Milwaukee website specifically regarding charter schools is a phone number where one can get an application to become a charter school. The charter schools are overseen by a “Charter School Review Committee” appointed by city officials. Meetings and decisions by the committee are not available on the City of Milwaukee website, nor is it clear where one can attain such information. (The city has made some recent changes to provide more of this information to the public).

Limited data on individual charter schools, both for UWM and the City of Milwaukee, is available through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, but not for the schools as a group.

Milwaukee Public Schools
There are 175 schools within MPS in 2011-12, with 80,098 students. Schools include traditional schools, charter schools, and partnership schools. Charter schools include both district-run charters (instrumentality) and independent charters (non-instrumentality).
MPS Accepts All KidsInformation on schools, programs, enrollment and demographics can be found at the MPS website. MPS is governed by a nine-member School Board, which each member elected to a four-year term in public elections. The board holds monthly public meetings, in addition to committee meetings, open to the public. The Milwaukee Public Schools is the city’s largest educational institution, and the only one with the commitment, capacity, and legal obligation to serve the needs of all the city’s children.
Overall, almost 20 percent of MPS students require special education services, and 10 percent are English Language Learners. The district offers Spanish/English bilingual programs at 24 schools, and Southeast Asian/English Bilingual Programs at two schools. English-as-a-Second Language programs are available at the bilingual schools and an additional 14 schools.
MPS issues an annual Report Card for the district as a whole, and for individual schools. The reports cards are available publicly via the MPS website. Contact information for the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, agendas, meeting calendars and audio records of board proceedings are available at the MPS board governance website.
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