Milwaukee League Comes to the Defense of Public Schools

“In the 21st century countries that out educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” Thus spake President Obama in announcing that his administration would award a total of $4 billion to states demonstrating seriousness of commitment to education reform. Imagine that that tired mantra, some fifteen years after NAFTA and the outsourcing of the U.S. manufacturing, service, and information economies, is a proclamation still being rolled out as a constructive commentary on the state of education and pretext, in the name of reform, for ending its public character.

Yet here it is, that same message: “educate to outcompete the rest of the world, or die,” emblazoned on the flag being carried by the Obama administration as it wages a zero tolerance war on America’s public schools at the same time as it plays Santa Claus to the banking industry, the industries that profit from defense manufacture and war, and the private health insurance industry. For indeed, in the name of reforming education to make its young products more globally competitive, so it wages an all-out campaign of opening up the schoolhouse gates to corporate entrepreneurs of the private education industry whose main credentials in education consist of a history of shortchanging kids through tax avoidance.

What marks the Obama administration off from its predecessors is not its rhetoric of “education reform” (as far as education reform rhetoric is concerned, the new administration is indistinguishable from its predecessors), but that it has put the process of converting public schools to private ownership into overdrive, pursuing this goal with a strong arm and a heavy hand not previously witnessed, and done so with unprecedented audaciousness by making it a condition for receiving funding for federally required reforms.

The limited amount of total federal funding for education puts states across the country in competition to be the lucky winners of a “race to the top” for these funds, awarded according to which state clamps down hardest on its low-achieving schools while reducing education reform to the level of an ESPN sports competition.

The latest round of stimulus funding for schools, the so-called “Race to the Top” requirements, are as follows: to even be eligible, as President Obama emphasized during his November visit to a Wisconsin charter school, states have to get rid of any “firewall” laws that have protected teachers from having one-size-fits-all tests used as an evaluation for compensation. The requirements for consideration (requirements as summarized in Education Week by Leslie A. Maxwell, Oct. 12, 2009) when a state is deemed eligible include:

1) Internationally competitive standards, common standards, align standards to assessments

2) School is to put an effective teacher and principal in the classroom; have to do a better job of preparing new teachers, rewarding good teachers and moving bad teachers out; residential programs preferred

3) States are to track progress of students to make sure that every child is ready to graduate and be ready for college or a vocation

4) A state is to focus on reforming or remaking its lowest performing schools by replacing staff, shutting down school entirely; no excuse for mediocrity

Let’s see what happens when this government-sponsored feeding frenzy by states locked in combat for funds hits Middle America, or more specifically hits Milwaukee, the biggest city in my Midwestern home state of Wisconsin.

NEWSFLASH: Federal government dangles “Race to the Top” funding grants as bait for mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public School District (MPS).

Here is the story of this unprecedented federal intrusion brought down by “Race to the Top” on the head of Milwaukee as it has unfolded during this past year.

Wisconsin held a statewide superintendent race in 2009 of which I was a part as the Green Party candidate. My campaign platform was simple: put the “public” back into public education. Little did I know how prophetic and on the mark those words would be, given the current attempt by the Federal Department of Education, leading down to the state and local levels of government, to take public education out of the hands of the people and turn it over to entrepreneurial power players such as Bill Gates.

This year would climax with the mounting of efforts going back many years, by the business voice of Milwaukee, the powerful Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and the city’s corporate media leader, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel (MJS), perennial detractor of public education, to single out the Milwaukee Public Schools for the lion’s share of criticism for overspending at a time of budgeting crisis at all levels of government and government services. During the spring, there was a McKinsey & Co. report which signaled the Milwaukee Public Schools to implement cost-cutting. It happens that MPS already had an activist school board which had created and implemented plans for cost-cutting. Nonetheless, there was talk emerging from the Governor, Mayor, and MPS officials that there needed to be an advisory board put together in order to resolve longstanding problems.

In June, a meeting took place in Milwaukee with attendance by a handful of select officials from Milwaukee, the State of Wisconsin, and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Though Wisconsin has historically rated at the very top of the list in academic achievement, its ratings have suffered from the performance of poor and minority students residing in urban centers such as Milwaukee. Duncan’s mission at the time was to motivate states to strive for his department’s so-called “Race to the Top” funds or grants that would be awarded on a selective basis to the states showing the greatest avidity for “unprecedented reform.” While the meeting transpired with no public input, it is not hard to deduce that what was discussed were the terms that would be required for Wisconsin to obtain these federal funds.

There were actually, according to MPS documents, reassurances made to the effect that there would be no major governance overhaul, as noted in the Milwaukee Opportunity Plan. Yet leaked to the public were the contents from a letter delivered from the Milwaukee School Board president to the school board saying that he was resigning from the advisory board because the Mayor had indicated that the advisory board would effectively be accountable to the Mayor alone, and meetings held in private, as noted by the Shepherd Express. This translated to “Mayoral Takeover,” and precisely the radical change in governance that had been widely PREDICTED. Courageously, and with the effect of bringing all this out into the open, the School Board president, Michael Bonds, blew the whistle.

Since the lid had been blown off the cover, the Mayor and the Governor had to scramble. The political machinations in and around the revelation of a hostile mayoral takeover bid since then have been a nonstop succession of bombshell developments. First there was another leak by the press to the effect that a staffer from Governor Doyle’s office indicated that the Governor would not seek a third term. This set off a melee of speculation and names being added and dropped from the list of prospective gubernatorial candidates.

The Governor further shocked the press when he did two things: first he stated that it had always been his intention not to run for a third term, which seemed incredible since the campaign funds were still flowing (in spite of indications that the Governor’s approval ratings had been dropping). Then he claimed to want to fix the school system. This also seemed incredible, as one was left wondering why now? Why not when the budget was being rushed through, a budget now passed that is crippling school districts across the state, cutting perhaps $500 million? How does all of this factor into the Governor’s green light for mayoral takeover?

On August 13th, the Governor and Mayor made it official that the Mayoral takeover bid was being pursued. In response, a full-blown grass roots protest grew up overnight, as many in the NAACP, City Council members, State legislators, Congressional persons, parents’ groups, most of the MPS school board, and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) rose up in opposition. Perhaps the bottom line sentiment of all these groups can be found in the following statement of the MTEA:

Mayoral takeover will not change the fundamental reform issue: the state’s method of funding public schools.

But what would happen with mayoral takeover? We can easily assume that the school board would lose control of budget and oversight, cronyism would come rushing in. We already have two precedents. Case number one is Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, who fired the board members who refused to go along with his charge to flunk kids on the basis of one standardized test score, and hired a corporate lawyer to run the district. Case number two: Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago fired his advisory board president, when he refused to back the Mayor’s decision to hire as a replacement for Duncan a manager with no experience what so ever in education, Ron Huberman. We can thus deduce that Mayor Barrett would do the same, that is, appoint an outsider, likely a superintendent from the corporate world, perhaps from the Eli Broad Institute where Charter schools with little public oversight are the primary model. Parents would quickly find that they have no say, zero in their schools.

And why would corporations and foundations be so happy with this state of affairs?

Because they would be able to get no-bid contracts, working with one party, the unitary executive, just like the Governor Doyle’s recent contracting with train construction, Spanish company Talgo, he can pick and choose, no bids no competition, just grease the wheel and then things happen, smooth and efficient, no mess. What do they get out of the deal? Power, money for campaign finances? But what does this matter, they already have that, this is just standard operating procedure.

Mayoral Control: Then and Now

The current fad of mayoral control has a long precedent dating back to the 1900s.

Then: More than one hundred years ago, most mayors were in charge of public education in their cities, and in those years “education reform” meant removing schools from the reach of City Hall and electing, rather than appointing, a school board. Reformers argued that mayors were often too corrupt and focused on providing patronage jobs and envisioned that elected members of a school board would be more democratic and better stewards of the children’s educations.

At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago’s public schools were constituted primarily by the children of ethnic, working-class families. The young female working class teachers who taught the students, were in many instances related to them. Their patrician school administrators, steeped in the progressive education theory, or “cult of social efficiency,” as noted by author Raymond E. Callaghan, sought to displace the teachers, move them out of their neighborhoods, and replace them with middle class teachers, trained at certified teacher education programs. These school administrators were considered “progressive” for doing so, and would naturally align themselves with City Hall on the one hand, venture capitalists on the other.

This was the beginning of an era that would continue to this day, of education being largely managed by the mayor and an appointed Superintendent. Popularly elected school boards would intervene in policy making. Yet vying for control would be the mayors and the heavy influence of the venture capitalists and their ‘Commercial Club.’

The key contribution to this understanding of how public policy actually gets made is by education policy analyst and historian Dorothy Shipps who notes that venture capitalists who composed the Commercial Club of Chicago (CCC), populated the civic groups, and drove the discussions and actions of educational reform since the 1880s until the present. In particular, the Commercial Club of Chicago has always striven for a system to meet the needs of industry and finance.

More specifically, the call at the turn of the 19th century for vocational schools when the CCC sought to create a model vocational school which would be emulated by others, aimed at putting out workers to fill the jobs needed in the factories and sweatshops of their employ. New teachers would have to receive “professional” credentials, as described by the author and historian of Blackboard Unions, Marjorie Murphy. Selected solely by the progressive administrators, those certified teacher education programs where one could receive the credential, would invariably be housed in elite, exceedingly expensive universities, out of sight and exorbitantly more expensive than what working class teachers could hope to afford.

Yet the working class teachers fought back. Margaret Haley, an Irish radical teacher unionist managed to find sources of tax money in the form of hidden sums that corporations had refused to pay. Haley and others demanded that city hall do its job to collect the funds. In court, the Unionists had their say and in 1899 managed to rattle the cages: $600,000, a large sum at the time was wrested free to at last address the teachers’ grievances:

“In Chicago despite impressive mass meetings, the voteless teachers remained unsuccessful until 1899 when Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley launched what they called the “the teachers tax crusade.”

Now: Fast forward to today, and one would find teachers, many of whom have made great gains, largely still struggling, as are the schools, because the politicians continue to shield the corporations and the wealthy corporate class from paying their fair share of taxes. Mayoral takeovers still appear to be the means by which the corporate class tries to exert its power over the school districts, and keep those ornery union teachers on task, and in line.

Nearly one hundred years later, Shipps describes as a “privileged process” the means by which the CCC and other business association allies came together and crafted the key reform initiative for Chicago, the country and perhaps the world. That initiative was the 1995 School Reform Law, and it largely centralized the management (after the previous decentralizing and recentralizing 1988 School Reform Law) of the Chicago Public School district under Mayoral control. This Mayoral control legislation was in fact drafted out of the Republican revolution that had taken place in the 1994 congressional elections when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich launched Contract with America. Illinois’ legislature also had a revolution of its own and through the efforts of Republican leaders working in tandem with Republican Governor Jim Edgar, the pro-management 1995 School Reform Law was the result.

Under the 1995 School Reform Law Mayor Daley was given the charge to select a CEO of the schools and to constitute a Board of Trustees. He did this and in the form of Paul Vallas the budget was stabilized, high stakes testing was instituted and a number of other reforms were instituted. Among these was reducing the power of the Local School Councils which under the 1988 School Reform Law were given broad power to hire and fire principals and make other decisions at the neighborhood level, in effect, empowering many parents and community members to take part in their school.

Yet ultimately it was questionable whether the re-centralization under the 1995 law helped African-American youth much, students who composed a bulk of CPS. Also, the use of single high stakes standardized testing did little to give confidence that students were achieving. In 2004, the Mayor decided to move even more in the direction of centralizing decision making, by opting, with the backing of the CCC, to set up a dual system called Renaissance 2010, which would be composed of a range of “Contract” “Performance”, and “Charter” type schools.

Still, while the jury is out about the success of these reforms, it is telling to note that the CCC found fit through the arm of the Civic Committee to find fault with the reform efforts. Publishing its latest report Still Left Behind in Summer 2009, the main finding is that scores have not gone up appreciably amongst inner city students, and that moving aggressively to Charter schools and merit pay is the answer.

These initiatives dovetail well with the Federal Government’s Department of Education requirement of state backing for Charter schools and teacher merit pay to qualify for Race to the Top. The call for more Charters rolls on even though suffering a serious blow from an also summer-released report out of Stanford University that found Charter schools to be marginal at best in improving public schools, and, comparatively speaking, doing rather poorly compared to traditional public schools.

Dorothy Shipps summarizes the conundrum of the CCC and like-minded allies having proposed a reform, and upon evaluating and being confronted by national studies and within their own circle with fault with the reform, moving on, oblivious, as though nothing had happened:

Ironically, corporate leaders apparently do not recognize their own part in the reforms they now judge to be failures, justifying their next reform as if it were an uncommon investment of corporate energy in improving the schools.

Mayoral Takeover Sneaks into and Stalls in Milwaukee

Congressman Tom Barrett ran in the Democratic primary for Governor in 2002 against several challengers, including the ultimate winner of the statewide race, then-Wisconsin Attorney General, Jim Doyle. Barrett had started a plan then, and soon thereafter retracted it, to introduce mayoral control of the school system in Milwaukee as a means to an end . . . turning around the school system. Doyle won the primary with heavy backing of the teachers union, and Barrett had to settle for running for Mayor of Milwaukee, which he did, and which he won in 2004, keeping in his campaign the Mayoral control agenda.

The idea of Mayoral Takeover appears to have never left Mayor Barrett’s agenda, and when opportunity knocked, well, he seized upon it.

In June of 2009, Secretary Duncan, on the heels of a visit to Columbus, Ohio, where he makes a ceremonial (and to my eyes as a spectator, somewhat lackluster) appearance at a rally, for public education no less, being hosted by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, perhaps the nation’s most bullish advocate for traditional public schools and staunch opponent of Charters, makes his way to Milwaukee where he weighs in with top officials, including the Governor and the Mayor, on the issue of “competing” for the “Race to the Top” funds, as reported by Alan J.Borsuk in “U.S. education secretary pushes to improve MPS,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 4, 2009.

The Mayor suggests to the School Board President, Michael Bonds, to get on board their scheme. Bonds calls them out on it, and in a letter to the rest of the School Board says that he won’t participate on an advisory board, as reported by Lisa Kaiser in “Exclusive: MPS President Bonds Resigns from Mayor’s Advisory Council,” Shepherd Express, Daily Dose, onAugust 13, 2009:

“I do not feel I can continue to serve on your public committee, while you and the Governor and other key actors are having private conversations about taking over the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) or changing its governance structure of which I am the president.”

The ripples from this revelation are quick. As a result of being unexpectedly outed by Bonds, Mayor and Governor are both put under the gun to put the issue out squarely as though it had been a well thought out public policy: for the first time, Governor Jim Doyle and Mayor Tom Barrett both state that achieving significant reform in Milwaukee Public Schools would require the mayor to literally lead the school system, including selecting the next city superintendent. At this time, no plan exists, except for the document, procured from the private consulting firm (Mckinsie Commission) report of months past, calling for cutbacks on employee benefits, giving kids pre-packaged lunches, and some other vague cost-cutting measures.

The next several weeks are comical if not also tragic. The Governor had already shocked the politicos with his announcement that he was not seeking re-election, only to launch the controversy of Mayoral takeover under the laughable rationale that the system needed more “consistency” . . .which of course could be provided by a lame duck Governor and a Mayor, waiting in the wings to leave Milwaukee and take the Governor’s job! Doyle made further incredible statements to the effect that he wanted now to “fix the school system.”

Why did he wait so long? Why did the Mayor wait so long? Could it be the money chase started by Obama and Duncan?

Mayor Barrett then defends a citizen at a fair and is savagely attacked by the assailant, injuring his hand. He becomes a national celebrity for a few weeks, and, undaunted, goes back on the offensive, debating the merits of the Mayoral takeover and leaving still in doubt whether he will run for Governor. Then the only declared candidate for Governor, the Democrat Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton, a true friend of the schools, unexpectedly pulls out, citing personal reasons. Meanwhile, the opposition to the proposed Mayoral takeover swells and grows. Finally, Barrett after a visit by President Obama and Secretary Duncan announces officially his intention to run for Governor.

But before getting to this point, the Mayor has had to deal with a constituency up in arms over his proposed takeover of the Milwaukee Public School District.

Confusion And Defiance Over The Mayoral Takeover Proposal

The scene was orchestrated but dramatic: well over thirty elected officials filled a narrow hall outside of Milwaukee Congresswoman Gwendolyn Moore’s office.  With cameras from every network hanging on her comments and in front of a throng of city wide supporters, school board members and state representatives, Moore opened the press conference on Tuesday, September 8, 2009:

“We are baffled and confused by the proposal…”

The Congresswoman continued by educating all in the room that any so-called takeover of the schools in Milwaukee would be no small undertaking. MPS has its own budget, larger even than that of the city itself, Moore exclaimed! The school system has its own taxing authority. And finally, the mayoral takeover itself was no guarantee of precipitating the flow of federal dollars from the coveted “Race to the Top” funds held in abeyance by the federal government, a qualification tellingly not reported by the mainstream paper of record, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Congresswoman Moore concluded her prepared words with this sobering reality:

“We will not rectify the challenges facing MPS unless we talk about poverty, teen pregnancy and the perverted policy initiatives that have exacerbated this problem for our city’s public schools. Milwaukee Public Schools are working with a flawed state funding formula that sends our public dollars to private schools outside of the city. … I fully believe that the Governor and the Mayor have the best intentions for MPS; however, I have yet to hear a credible explanation of how these difficult challenges get fixed by simply changing the way that our school board is chosen.”

Next to speak was President Michael Bonds of the school board, the same Bonds who had blown the whistle on the whole deal when he revealed that the Mayor had asked him to move from his position as School Board President on an advisory board to being a being a bit player in the Mayor’s newly proposed appointed board of advisors. Bonds was lauded by Congresswoman Moore for ensuring the money from contracted-out resources, the privatization that is all the rage in big cities today, actually and at least made its way to the proper location in the public school classroom.

Bonds argued that the school district was overstretched, resources spread thin and one of his main goals was to make the school district in fact smaller, to standardize and enhance the curriculum, and maximize the use of resources. He spoke for Milwaukee parents and teachers, gathered outside of Congresswoman Moore’s office in the hallway that day when he said:

“This school board is the most pro student in years.”

Bonds proudly cited that reading and math scores have gone up, that improvements have been made with the preparation of students for college, that an accountability office had been established to help facilitate information flow between the school administration and the board of directors in order for the board to make sound decisions.

But even more to the point, Bonds argued, the Mayoral Takeover is about “power and control,” simple as that. Given Milwaukee’s economic problems, cost overruns, and racial discrimination, Bonds stated in a public letter to the Governor, Mayor and State Superintendent,

“Do we really want to turn MPS over to mayoral control, given the city’s current fiscal problems, governance issues, racial disparities in Milwaukee, its recent history of corruption, its lack of expertise in education and its lack of an educational reform plan?”

Education Reform Committee Doubts the Reform of Mayoral Takeover

In a subsequent hearing before the Assembly’s Education Reform committee, a state legislator representing Milwaukee, Representative Young, reflected the dissension among many in the Democratic Party over Mayor Takeover in this telling statement:

“You know, what’s surprising to me because I’ve been in office for about 16 or 17 years is that traditionally you would hear this type of [threat] from a . . . Republican Governor and what was surprising was that you’ve got a Democratic governor, that, you know he got a lot of support from Milwaukee, for him to say “takeover”…that’s surprised me.”

It was well affirmed by the committee that Mayoral Takeover had less to do with fixing the schools, and more to do with political control, and that the School Board under Bonds had been making progress toward greater accountability and transparency. Ironically, the Committee on Education Reform was chaired by none other than Milwaukee Democratic Party Representative Annette Polly Williams. Williams, the Democratic iconoclast critic of public education who in the early 1990’s launched the original privatization scheme, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, or the modern day School Voucher movement in Milwaukee, had made a 180 degree turn and was now, like the rest of the committee, suspicious of and an opponent of mayoral takeover.

Another Democratic Party Representative, Christine Sinicki, vice chair of the Assembly’s Education Reform Committee—of which Williams is the chair — who also opposes the takeover, said she, Sinicki, would block any bill that would change control of MPS to an appointed board. “If a bill is drafted, it’ll die,” Sinicki said. “If it doesn’t die, I’ll amend it to include all districts in the state.”

Several of the Milwaukee school board members testified to the committee, including Larry Miller, who offered that he was working with the parents of Milwaukee to improve parental involvement, and he noted that the district was succeeding in reducing suspension through greater and more direct involvement with the students in the schools.

Board member Miller pointed out in a public forum “How can MPS better educate the children of Milwaukee?” October 1, 2009, at Riverside High School, the following revealing information. During the Summer, 2009, a study completed by the Commercial Club of Chicago found that academic gains made by elementary students in the mayor-controlled Chicago Public Schools “appear to be due to changes in the tests made by the Illinois State Board of Education, rather than real improvements in student learning.” The study called the performance of Chicago’s high schools “abysmal.”

This information, in yet another irony, was forwarded by the same Commercial Club that initially called for Mayoral control in Chicago to begin with!

Finally, Annie Woodward, a newly elected board director and longtime social worker stressed that, in order for the school district to prosper, it would be necessary to meet the community and students’ social and emotional needs.

If it takes everyone working together to help Milwaukee’s public schools prosper and be accountable, to not only raise test scores but to meet the students’ social and emotional needs, and to help teachers to be the best they can be, does it make sense to dismantle an elected body, placing the decision-making power for the entire school district in the hands of one elected official?

Duncan Denies Mayoral Takeover Is a Condition; But Lobbies for It In New York

To be certain, Milwaukee Public Schools faces daunting challenges: 85% of the student body are on free and reduced lunch, in effect coming from impoverished homes. Yet as another school board member, and former president, Peter Blewett, noted, Milwaukee still retains some of the state’s very best schools! Despite the odds, having well over 50% of the student population in poverty, an outstanding school like Rufus King High School could still achieve at the highest level. School board member Blewett also pointed out that while every child needs to graduate, MPS was only slightly below the state average of 70% graduation.

All in all, as Bonds and others noted, MPS was indeed improving, and they believed the vision would really emerge over the next few years.

Which then gets us back to where we started: why a proposed mayoral takeover?

Governor, Mayor and Secretary, seem to indicate that Mayoral Takeover is a way to become competitive or at least be eligible to be competitive for the “Race to the Top” funds.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore exposed this misstatement of the criteria. Moore had followed up later, asking Secretary Duncan point blank in a meeting in June whether Mayoral takeover is a precondition to getting the stimulus “Race to the Top” funds. He says no. He replies in a formal letter in September with the following open ended statement:

You asked about qualification and standards that States must meet in order to compete for Race to the Top grants. Although we have not yet released the final priorities and criteria for Race to the Top, mayoral control of the public schools was not a criterion included in the proposed priorities that we released for public comment in July.

Still, Duncan had made perfectly clear his support of mayoral control in coming out, in an unprecedented way for an Education Secretary, as a champion and lobbyist for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his pursuit of mayoral control (and re-election to his office) in August, 2009. Duncan did not mince words in expressing his espousal of the need for a unitary executive for the schools and dismissal of the principle of democratic control through elected school boards:

“If we believe that a system of mayoral control is the only chance we have of implementing real change in a school system like New York’s, and I believe this strongly, then any kind of separate unaccountable decision-making body even if it will probably agree with the mayor most of the time is a step in the wrong direction.”

Responding to this, an educational author believes Duncan is clearly out of bounds . . .

In fact, as reported in our book, New York City Schools Under Bloomberg and Klein, What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know, there has been no significant improvement in any grade or subject tested by NAEP in NYC except 4th grade math, and in that subject, 25 percent of students were provided with “accommodation” or extra help, far higher than in any other city.”

. . . and shameless in his revelation that research doesn’t matter when policy is at stake:

“He has consistently ignored the fact that the most credible measures of student achievement, the National Assessment of Education Progress, as provided by his own agency, the US Department of Education, show little or no improvement since Mayor Bloomberg’s reforms were introduced in September 2003.”

A Milwaukee Resident Weighs In On New York’s Mayoral Takeover “Success”

I decided to do my own research on New York’s experience with mayoral control, and in August of 2009, conducted a short interview with a Milwaukee native working in New York to get a teacher’s opinion. Ursula, an Alverno College Political Science major, attended the Creative Arts Elementary School, Roosevelt Middle, the Milwaukee Theatre of the Arts High School, and resides on the South Side:

“My dad is a public school teacher; my mom works at a community-based Milwaukee healthcare facility. I’ve spent my entire life in Milwaukee . . .”

To her, mayoral takeover, for all the media hype, is less than meets the eye:

“I’m spending time working with New York City national youth organizations. Bloomberg’s takeover is recognized by the media as a success; yet if you talk with a lot of New Yorkers, most will say ‘it’s not working’, parents do not have access. English Language Learner students have classes in staircases, there’s overcrowding. Parents ask, how do we hold this system accountable?? Due to mayoral takeover, parents have lost control over education. There is no way to make up for an elected school board . . .”

Parents in New York City boroughs must, if they have a concern, travel far outside their neighborhood to engage city officials. Gone are local school councils. Newly constituted Educational Management Organizations take their place. And the result?

“Disenfranchisement. Parents are drifting away, not able to be involved in their child’s education; there’s no accountability. Lack of democracy in an appointed board can only create a parallel system of separation of parents from their children’s education.”

These families already reside in “areas that are historically disenfranchised.” Concerned citizens, like Ursula, are pushing back

“What we in Milwaukee want is better funding for our schools. We have a diverse and excellent group of people on our school board, academically and in life. The problems in Milwaukee public schools are broader, it’s due to social conditions, but the major problem is the consistent defunding of our district.”

Locked Out

On October 19th, beginning to ratchet up the stakes, the Governor made a visit to Milwaukee to speak at the YMCA along with the Mayor. In an example of what is to come, several parents, unionists and community members who spoke out against the proposed takeover were denied entrance into the building. Others, who decided to leave their voice outside of the building, spoke about what happened inside, after the so-called “press conference.” Chris Dee, a Milwaukee area professor explains that the Governor and Mayor are playing an historic game:

“There’s no condition [for Mayoral Takeover] at all and it’s. . . I teach history of the Vietnam War and we’ve all seen two wars in the Middle East, with both of the Gulf Wars and the Vietnam War, and this kind of reminds me. . . the reasons for the takeover keep changing”

True to form, and in an example of what is to come with mayoral takeover should it come to pass, the assemblage representing the actual community inside and outside the schools was locked out, excluded from the discussion.

Locked out, despite the fact that many of them had already called in to the event and had reserved a place at the table. Locked out because a place at the table is no longer secure in Mayor Barrett’s Milwaukee, and therefore their seating was revoked.

Still, there were some who attended, who opted to be docile inside, and here are their remarks about this press conference and what the Governor had to say:

“It was a horse and pony show” “They have no plan” “It’s all about the “Race to the Top” funds” “They want the money from the Governor’s supporters so the Mayor can run for Governor” ” “They said that Milwaukee needed the takeover in order to develop more consistency” “It seems like they have a shotgun sort of thing, they have plans but they are kind of scattered”

Outside the YMCA, the parents, daycare workers, custodial and food service workers gathered. In a scene reminiscent of the Chicago teachers and rabble rouser Margaret Haley’s protests one hundred years ago, these folks were excluded from the rehearsed proceedings inside. A group called People United for MPS (PUMPS), and Mothers for the Struggle filled out the “rabble” and spoke out against the proposed mayoral takeover:

“We don’t want to go back to separate but unequal”

“The Mayor has a lot of other things to do, like fixing the budget for the rest of the city”

Teachers were of course excluded even prior to the event; they were teaching at the time in the schools. One teacher who actively opposes the mayoral takeover aptly remarked:

“It’s interesting to see how they roll this out when we are so busy, teaching the kids. Ever notice how initiatives like this never roll out at the end of a school year, when teachers would have the time and energy to really mobilize?”

There was nothing but disdain for the secret meetings and the top down approach preferred by the Governor and Mayor.

The battle for recognition of the excluded citizenry is being led by the Milwaukee Public School defense league, in recent months coming together under an organization calling itself the Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover. By raising an outcry that is being joined in other major U.S. cities where mayoral takeover has been instituted, Milwaukee has made itself one of the leaders in a growing storm that may just succeed in tripping up the best laid plans of education’s corporate privatizers.

In the meantime, the political push is moving forward. On October 27, 2009, Governor Doyle flanked by five State legislators from Milwaukee, rolled out a proposed law to allow the Mayor to take over the Milwaukee Public School District. The law is yet to be introduced for a vote by the State legislature.

A week after the Governor announced it, however, on November 3rd, hundreds of the Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover occupied Milwaukee City Hall to protest the law.

On the Road to Reform Schools

On November 4th President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan travelled to Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin. Speculation concerned whether the trip was intended to support Mayor Barrett’s bid for the Governor’s race, but no one’s talking. The visit officially was to push “Race to the Top.”

Ignored largely by the mainstream media, a peace protest commenced, a block away from the event, drawing hundreds of participants including students calling for the DREAM act, decrying the waste of taxpayer dollars, and calling for “Books not Bombs.” Also, the Mayoral takeover is challenged as a distraction from the real problem; inequitable school funding, as noted by an Edgewood College instructor, T.J. Mertz:

“What we’re seeing in Wisconsin, lots of attention given to superficial and distracting reforms, like Mayoral takeover, that may or may not be beneficial, and very little to how are we going to maintain the quality of schools that we value so much, we have a great tradition and the tradition is eroding.”

Mertz and myself spoke as invited faculty at the “Books not Bombs” protest. We questioned how President Obama seems to get a pass on war spending, while pushing education spending as if it were significant:

Mertz: “We’re spending billions for bombs and we can’t spend pennies for kids”

Mertz: “We are reshaping our educational policy for a pittance…”

Price: “There’s been a lot of focus on the Mayoral Takeover and it’s a very important issue, but even before that the Governor passed an insufficient budget. Schools in Oshkosh, Wisconsin are closing, we have funding by referendum. What type of budget do we need, regardless of who’s the Governor next time?”

Two days later, November 6, 2009, with the consent of the teacher union, the Wisconsin Educator Association Council, the Wisconsin state legislature acted on pressure from the President, Secretary Duncan, and the Governor and for the first time passed a law tying teacher salaries to students’ scores on standardized tests. A bill to expand the State Superintendent’s powers dramatically has not moved, while at the time of this writing it is leaked that State Senator Lena Taylor from Milwaukee plans to complete a draft “the Milwaukee TEACH Act” with colleagues shortly to be considered in a special session. On November 14th the Coalition held a protest outside of Taylor’s residence, demanding a public hearing on the “Milwaukee TEACH Act.” Another proposed bill, “Race to Success” is introduced, a bill which would preempt the “Milwaukee TEACH Act.”

Meanwhile, the Mayor ended speculation and declares his intention to run for Governor, indicating, also, his intention to do so while remaining in the office of mayor and continuing to fight for Mayoral takeover. The Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover continues the fight, holding another protest outside of the next legislator’s residence, Taylor’s cosponsor, Pedro Colon, on November 21st.

And so it goes, in the battle to keep the public in control of the public schools.

TODD ALAN PRICE is Associate Professor of Educational Foundations and Inquiry at National-Louis University in Chicago, Illinois. He teaches in Illinois and in Wisconsin. In 2009 he was the Wisconsin Green Party candidate for State Superintendent.