Progressive workers around the US breathed a sigh of relief two months ago following the announcement that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had ended his presidential campaign. For the people of Wisconsin, the announcement was bittersweet, as Walker has returned from the campaign trail only to launch increasingly arrogant attacks against workers and students. The latest of these is a forceful takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools, in which struggling public schools will be closed and handed over to private owners.
The privatization of public education is not new to Milwaukee. It has been a project over 25 years in the making. The voucher school system in Milwaukee is home to over 100 schools and a student body of 26,000. The schools compete for students, which are valued at $7,210 each. Local residents pay one third of this cost. It has not been uncommon for voucher schools to shut their doors in the middle of the school year, as many administrators have no formal experience or background in education. In fact, a bachelor’s degree was not required to administer a voucher school until 2010. Since 2004, over 50 voucher schools in Milwaukee have failed and closed their doors.
How the Charter Schools Moved In
Initially, the charter school movement had attempted to co-opt the legitimate anger of the Black, Latino, and Hmong communities in the city about the state of the public-schools. Eighty six percent of public school students in Milwaukee are Black or Latino. Students in inner-city schools have suffered increasingly prison-like conditions, with a lack of resources and staffing to meet their most basic needs. In Milwaukee, those who wished to privately own the schools and run them as a business found an uneasy ally in Polly Williams, a black democratic politician from Milwaukee’s blight-stricken northwest side.
In the 1980s, Polly Williams had put forward a plan for the majority black northwest side of the city to secede from the Milwaukee Public School District and form its own all black school district. This plan was never achieved as it was in the face of a court order which forced the de-segregation of the Milwaukee Public Schools, and she was unable to achieve unity in the black community for her plan. The NAACP and other black organizations supported the court order of de-segregation through busing over a plan for secession.
Having been defeated in her plan to create a competing school district based on a geographic region within the city, Williams felt that the next best option was to create competing schools. This caught the attention of the Bradley Foundation, a conservative think tank in Milwaukee. They approached Williams in the late 1980s and offered to provide money, research, and PR for her if she was willing to be the public face of the charter school movement, and promote the idea in the legislature. Williams then entered into what she later referred to as “an unholy alliance” with the interests of big business.
In April of 1990, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was passed into law, and the charter school system was born. Polly was declared to be the “Rosa Parks of education.” However, the conservative praise for Polly Williams did not last long, as she became critical of the Bradley Foundation’s push to expand into vouchers for religious schools, and for the removal of income caps on vouchers.
Williams saw the program being rapidly diverted from her vision of black controlled schools, into a subsidy program for white middle class parents. By the mid-90s, the charter school movement had dumped Congresswoman Polly Williams. In a particularly blunt interview, George Mitchell, a prominent wealthy supporter of charter schools stated: “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” and that he hadn’t had contact with her after 1995. Polly would later go on to actively speak against the charter school movement, and had begun to work with the teachers’ union to craft social justice policies for public schools before her death in 2014.
The charter school movement in Milwaukee has not met the needs of students of color, nor is it even legally obligated to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The history of the charter schools in Milwaukee thus far has been plagued with fraud, abuse, and waste. The most infamous example occurred in 2014, when administrators of Life Skill Academy, a religious voucher school, closed their doors without notice in the middle of the school year, leaving 66 students without a school. When a charter school closes in the middle of the year, the law prevents the state from recouping the public funds lost for the remainder of the year. So Taron and Rodney Monroe who ran the school were free to take the $2.3 million they had received in state vouchers over six years to Daytona Beach, Florida and found a new charter school, Life Skills Academy II.
Any unity between poor communities of color and the forces of big business is a unity founded upon lies. It is an “unholy alliance” that cannot last and will always end in betrayal. Milwaukee has suffered 25 years of both poor quality public schools and fly-by-night charters. But now big business interests – focused on privatizing large sections of public education – want to go further and have successfully pushed through a plan to not only expand a failing charter system, but to take over and defund the remaining public schools. Poor and working class families and students must unite with the teachers and support staff at the public schools to defeat this takeover and build a movement to achieve quality public education for all.
The takeover plan itself was initiated in a state budget measure and it exclusively targets public schools in the city of Milwaukee. The takeover plan was announced at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, and passed during summer break, while the majority of teachers were out on vacation. The state legislature has given authority to the Democratic Milwaukee County Executive to select a “takeover czar” or commissioner who will choose the first three public schools to be handed over to private companies, the funding for which is to be raided from the Milwaukee Public Schools budget. After that, the czar can identify up to five “failing” schools each year to give away.
Staff at the public schools chosen for takeover will all be fired. They would then have to reapply for their old jobs, and, as a condition of further employment (if they were lucky enough to get rehired), would waive their right to be represented by a union. In addition, students with disabilities and English-Language Learners could be pushed out of a takeover school, as charter and voucher schools are not required to provide these services. As 55 schools are currently targeted for takeover, the staff, students, and families are stuck in limbo, unsure of who will be the first victims.
After the announcement of the legislation, the citizens of Milwaukee were confused as to why suburban legislators would get the state government to have the county government oversee the forceful takeover of the city’s public schools. As people began to speak out against the takeover, Sen. Ron Johnson confirmed the community’s suspicion that the legislature is not doing this with the good of Milwaukee students at heart. In response to criticism of the takeover, Johnson tried to divide the opposition on racial lines by accusing white liberal parents opposed to the plan of racism because they were not sending their children into the public schools to be with “those idiot inner-city kids they purport to be so supportive of.”
After teachers and other public employees lost their collective bargaining rights following the implementation of Act 10, Scott Walker’s 2011 anti-union legislation, the right-wing in WI had assumed that the public-sector unions would be drained of their membership. However, in Milwaukee, the teachers’ union has expanded its membership in spite of being unable to negotiate a contract.
In the years following Act 10, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) turned to a model of protest, coalition building, and forging grassroots leadership to confront low-wages, large class sizes, lack of prep-time, and other issues facing students and teachers alike. Without the legal ability to negotiate a contract, teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff members at Milwaukee schools began staging protests at school board meetings to win demands including pay increases, clear salary schedules, and more time for lunch, which many teachers had been skipping.
Furthermore, recognizing the value of community support, the MTEA allied with unions representing bus drivers, service workers, and teachers in the technical college system, along with several social justice organizations to form “Schools and Communities United.” Since its creation, Schools and Communities United has used its strength and resources to door-knock across the city, recruiting students into the public-schools, and has successfully fought back against the rampant bribery in the charter school system. Until Schools and Communities United began challenging them, charter schools could offer incentives for families to enroll their children in the form of gifts such as tablet computers or even cash incentives up to $200 per student. Additionally, Schools and Communities United is leading a campaign to educate parents of their rights to opt out of high stakes testing.
In the face of what might be the boldest current school takeover and privatization plan in the country, the MTEA has doubled down on this organizing model. With the start of a new school year, the union put out a call for leaders in each school to organize “walk-ins” as a means to raise community awareness about the takeover, and to begin building the structures of a member-driven defense committee for each school. The response was tremendous. On Friday, September 18, over 100 schools participated in the walk-in, with teachers, students, parents, and community members rallying outside of schools, giving impassioned speeches and signing up more organizers. On December 5, 2015, there will be an all-city summit of school defense committees to determine how to proceed.
While the Wisconsin workers have suffered historic defeats, the actions of the teacher’s union point the way forward for both public and private sector unions in Wisconsin and beyond.
Socialist Alternative demands:
- Fully fund quality neighborhood schools.
- End the expansion of the voucher school system.
- Cut off public funds for religious education.
- Bring all charter schools under the democratic control of an elected school board.
- End the school to prison pipeline by seeking alternatives to suspensions and developing a student-centered curriculum.
- Build an independent working classpolitical alternative to the city’s Democratic Party apparatus which is prepared to implement and administer this vicious Republican attack.