If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thought running for President of the United States was a big challenge, he may be facing an even more imposing contest back in his home state.
Last week, all across the community of greater Milwaukee, thousands of parents and public school advocates showed up before the opening bells at neighborhood schools to protest education policies many Wisconsinites attribute to Walker and his administration. The protests were called “walk ins” – a tactic borrowed from school protests in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014 – as opposed to walk outs which disrupt students’ learning time.
Parents, teachers, and students had a range of specific complaints that can all be attributed to Walker’s governance.
As the local Journal Sentinel newspaper reports, “at more than 100 public schools” protestors turned out to oppose a “program, devised by Republican state lawmakers from the suburbs,” that created a state-operated district to oversee a portion of the city’s public schools that are deemed under-performing.
The Milwaukee County Executive hand-picked by Walker to oversee the district is about to name a commissioner to run the special district.
As the Journal Sentinel report notes, protestors wanted to voice their resentment at having local schools taken out from under the control of their democratically elected school board. They also wanted to send clear warning to the ruling Executive, Chris Abele, that he had better not select someone inclined to turn the yet-to-be-designated schools over to a charter school organization, which is what is generally feared.
Straight Out Of Scott Walker
The school takeover program “comes straight out of Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign rhetoric, ” says a Wisconsin progressive blog based in Green Bay. The post quotes Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca who notes the takeover program “[was] not requested by Milwaukee or any of the other large cities that could be affected; no hearings were held, and the effects could be devastating to our large school districts.”
But parents at the walk ins also had long-held grievances with the underfunding of their public schools while tax dollars meant for education are increasingly redirected to charter schools and private schools that qualify for money in the district’s school voucher program. Milwaukee is the site of the nation’s longest-running school voucher program that allows families who qualify to remove their children from public schools and use vouchers from the state to send the students to a school of their choosing, even if the destination school is private or religiously based.
“The state will spend $258 million in the 2016-17 school year on private school vouchers,” a Madison, Wisconsin-based news outlet reports. “At the same time, the amount of state aid sent to public schools will be reduced by $83 million to offset the voucher spending, for a net cost to the state of $175 million … the amount spent each year on vouchers will have increased by 77 percent next school year over 2011 levels.”
These voucher schools have virtually no accountability. Privately operated charter schools that are now proliferating across the state are little, if any, better. In Milwaukee, high school closures, almost all of which were charter schools, likely decreased “high school graduation rates by nearly 10 percent,” according to a recent study. The effects persist “even if the students attends a better quality school after closure.”
Currently, in the Milwaukee district, about 41 percent of the students attend schools that are private schools or privately administered charter schools.
“We’re angry at the continued loss of funding,” parent Angela McManaman told me in a phone conversation. McManaman, a parent with three children in Milwaukee Public Schools and a fourth on the way, attended one of the walk-ins.
McManaman points to Walker’s most recent budget that she believes will lead to “loosing vital access to education opportunities … fully staffed libraries … access to art and music education … larger class sizes.”
“The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools,” writes Bob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine. Writing at the Answer Sheet bog run by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, Peterson explains that as a result of Walker’s budget, “A majority of public school districts in Wisconsin will receive less funding this year, and no school district’s state funding will keep up to inflation. At the same time, the budget expands taxpayer support of private voucher schools, which are overwhelmingly religious schools and which are subject to minimal public oversight.”
McManaman is also dissatisfied with the Walker plan for potential charter take-over of schools in her district. “It’s a continued loss of local control,” she maintains. “Our schools are under a serious threat.”
A Hostile Takeover
“The County Executive has all the power,” Kim Schroeder told me in a different phone conversation. Schroeder has been teaching in the district for 20 years and is president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.
Schroder acknowledges Abele has pledged to not bring in charter school authorizers, but he doesn’t believe him. Like McManaman, he sees what’s being imposed on his school district as an existential threat.
He argues that funding what are essentially three separate school systems – the private voucher schools, the privately operated charters, and Milwaukee Public schools – is driving the district toward financial insolvency. “We’re reaching a tipping point. If more of our schools are chosen for privatization, MPS won’t exist in three to five years.” His concerns echo the MPS board president’s warning earlier this year that, according to an independent news outlet, the Walker devised plan “would bankrupt the district by hijacking money and facilities from the district and into private but taxpayer-supported schools.”
“Let’s call it what it is – a hostile takeover,” the board president told the reporter.
Resistance Is Better Organized
What McManaman and Schroeder describe happening in Milwaukee is almost an identical copy of what I reported happening in Nashville, Tennessee. The program for “reform” goes like this: First, underfund schools to the point it seriously harms their capacities to educate, especially in underserved communities where the schools are already challenged with students whose grinding poverty puts them behind even before they reach the schoolhouse door. When these underfunded schools score low on state assessments, as they almost always do, the state declares an “emergency” situation to hand the schools over to a charter management organization or siphon off their enrollments with vouchers. One-by-one, schools are picked off for takeover until the whole district is threatened with insolvency and becomes a candidate for the next New Orleans.
What’s different between Nashville and Milwaukee is that in Milwaukee the resistance to reform seems better organized.
Earlier this year, the folks at Think Progress noticed Milwaukee is “fighting against public school privatization.” Alice Ollstein reported, “As Governor Scott Walker’s state budget inches toward passage, parents, teachers and students are taking to the streets to oppose sections of the education budget, which include sweeping changes they say would effectively privatize many public schools while draining funding from others.”
The resistance from parents fuels organizations like Schools & Community United and the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope that helped organize the walk ins, and an active Facebook page “Stop the Takeover of MPS.”
Teachers seem better organized too. Schroeder recalls that when he started teaching in 1995, the district was already into its fifth year of the voucher program, and voucher schools were using clever marketing tactics, such as gift cards from Walmart, to attract families. “We didn’t have a plan to battle them,” he recalls. That’s changed, he contends.
“Now we’re going out and having one-on-one conversations with parents,” Schroeder says. “We’ve brought back 500 parents to public schools.
“We’re not going to let our public schools die.”