How Long Will Public Education Survive in Milwaukee?

Milwaukee is the original laboratory of corporate reform. Since 1990, it has had a thriving charter sector and a thriving voucher sector. Competition was supposed to lift all boats, but it didn’t. All three sectors are doing poorly. Neither the voucher schools nor the charter schools outperform the public schools. The public schools have far more students eith disabilities than the other sectors, which don’t want them. On NAEP, Milwaukee is one of the nation’s lowest performing urban districts.

So what do reformers want now? To set in motion a process to turn all of Milwaukee into a privately-managed system, all charters and vouchers. Failure never deters them from more privatization.

Larry Miller is a member of the Milwaukee public school board. In this post, he describes the current proposal to cripple and destroy the Milwaukee public school system, offered by two suburban Republicans.

The plan, sponsored by Republicans Rep. Dale Kooyega and Sen. Alberta Darling, allows a single unelected official to turn five low-scoring schools over to a charter operator or a voucher school every year.

Miller writes:

“For one, the plan places authority over these schools, dubbed “opportunity schools,” in a single commissioner, appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Theoretically, Abele could provide some oversight of that person, and to a certain extent that commissioner will have to follow state and federal laws.

“But unlike in MPS, there is no democratically-elected governance board; the proposal does not allow the elected Milwaukee County Board any oversight, despite putting the commissioner directly under the county executive (who is elected only once every four years; there are school board—and county board—elections every two years). All power to evaluate and close failing MPS schools lies with this one individual, as does the power to authorize, fund, and monitor the success or failure of these new opportunity schools.

“Let me repeat part of that again: A single, unelected, unknown “commissioner” will absolutely have the authority to close public schools operated by the democratically-elected Milwaukee Board of School Directors, confiscate the buildings, material, and students (maybe? see below) within those schools, and turn them over to private, possibly religious, possibly for-profit operators.

“The proposal suggests in at least two ways that the problem with failing schools is teachers, though thinking only about teachers is stupidly reductive. Any staff in the schools selected to be closed and handed off can reapply for their jobs, but they have to sign a contract that they will not seek representation by a union. Teachers unions, of course, had their authority gutted by 2011’s Act 10, so I am unsure why Kooyenga and Darling fear unions in their “opportunity schools.”

“They also seem to fear fully licensed teachers. The plan allows the commissioner to grant licenses to whoever wants one to teach in these schools. Let’s be clear: the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction makes no provision for such a thing to happen. The federal law governing schools makes no provision for such a thing to happen.

“There are well-established emergency licenses and even alternative certification programs available, sure. But this power, residing in a single individual with, potentially, no expertise or qualification in education, to unilaterally grant licenses to any random person is unprecedented. A quick googling turns up no other program anywhere in the country—even in the “recovery zones” in New Orleans or Detroit on which this program is modeled—that allows a commissioner like this one to license teachers on his own.

“And, really, does anyone believe that the problem in these schools is that the teachers there are licensed and represented by the union? If that is the problem, then why are the top schools in the state full of licensed, qualified teachers? Would Kooyenga and Darling have the nerve to walk into MPS’s Reagan or Fernwood Montessori, or for that matter, Brookfield East or Maple Dale in their home districts, and demand they discharge all the licensed teachers in their employ? Of course not.”

Both legislators stressed their admiration for the current Milwaukee public school superintendent.

“Kooyenga said they are not trying to undermine MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, but help her by allowing other parties to try something radically different in the district’s most challenged programs.

“Darling added that she thought highly of Driver, and that she would like to see her be considered for the role of commissioner — as long as the school board isn’t involved in the turnaround schools.”

However, Superintendent Druver said that a change of governance would not address the children’s problems.

She said:

“Driver said the impact of poverty on low test scores would not be alleviated by a change in school governance. She also pointed to the fact that private voucher schools have no better performance record overall than the city’s public schools.

“We can’t go to the quick fix,” she said Monday during an education conference at Marquette University. “I just beg everyone: Don’t go to what sounds sexy. Let’s go to the data.”

“Driver said any new plan to address low-performing schools in Milwaukee should also address chronically underperforming voucher and charter schools — not just district schools. She also highlighted programs already in place at some of the district’s lowest-performing schools that have started to show signs of improvement.”

The plan got poor reviews from the state superintendent and the head of the Milwaukee teachers’ union:

“Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association union, said the plan was “an insult” to the Milwaukee community and part of a larger plan to privatize schools throughout the state.

“For two white suburban legislators to propose that the white county executive appoint a ‘Commissioner’ who will have ‘parallel authority’ to the democratically elected school board is a racist attack on the democratic rights of the citizens of Milwaukee, the majority of whom are black and brown,” Peterson said in a statement.

“State Superintendent Tony Evers said Monday at the Marquette conference that improving schools doesn’t hinge on changing governance but on hard work and adequate resources.

“Looking for a silver bullet is a fool’s errand,” he said.”

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