Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rebuilding our schools, our communities and our democracy

There is an inherent link between strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy. In Milwaukee, all are endangered.

We cannot rebuild our Milwaukee Public Schools without rebuilding our neighborhoods. Our public schools, in turn, are essential to that rebuilding. But only if we preserve our schools as democratic institutions connected to the community.

Long before the powers-that-be abandoned our public schools, they abandoned our communities. It is time to call a halt to the politics of abandonment.

For more than a quarter century, what has been the status quo in Milwaukee? Ignoring segregation. Standing by while job growth bypasses the city and is centered in the suburbs. Living in denial about the need for regional mass transit. Taking money away from public schools and funneling tax dollars into private voucher schools and privately run charter schools. The list could go on.

To rebuild MPS, we need a new vision. Yet what is being promoted? So-called turnaround plans and a proliferation of privately run schools — which undermine democratic control of our schools and do nothing to improve academic achievement.

We do not need precious local dollars channeled to national McFranchise charter chains, whether Rocketship, KIPP or Universal Schools. We cannot afford to squander tax dollars on over-paid national consultants who fly in on Monday, leave on Friday, and never make a lasting commitment to either our schools or the children and communities we serve.

Schools as greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization

Our schools can — and must— be greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization.

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), working with community and parent groups, is developing initiatives to make much-needed improvements in our schools. Here are some.

  • Schools as community centers that provide wrap-around services for children and recreation and adult education for the neighborhood.
  • Schools that educate the whole child rather than turning children into mere test-takers. All schools should have libraries and strong programs in art, music, and physical education. Class sizes must be reduced, and children must have access to quality tutoring.
  • Culturally responsive teaching. This includes bilingual education, learning a second language for all students, and multicultural, anti-racist teaching.
  • Significant parent involvement, from supporting children at home to volunteering in classrooms and being involved in school councils. One important step — hiring parent organizers at each school.
  • Policies that focus on safe schools, restorative justice, and high expectations that help students grow into caring, responsible adults.
  • Stable, collaborative leadership that respect all employees, parents, and students. The revolving door of principals must end.

These goals are within our reach. MPS already has a number of high-achieving schools that we can learn from. People know of the language schools and programs in Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate. Here are other examples.

  • Three teachers from ALBA, a teacher-led school on the south side, were recently named People magazine’s teachers of the year. This school, among other successes, teaches all its students to be bilingual.
  • MPS has the largest public Montessori program in the country, and the MPS schools have long waiting lists.
  • The STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) programs, with support from the business community, have increased student achievement at high schools such as Bradley Tech and at elementary schools such as Vieau.

Rather than build on these homegrown successes, city and state powerbrokers want to turn over struggling MPS schools to out-of-state consultants or charter operators. Why not follow the example of Hopkins-Lloyd Community School?

Hopkins-Lloyd is reaching out to members of the neighborhood, and is partnering with Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, Hepatha Lutheran Church, and Marquette University Dental School. This spring, under the auspices of the MTEA, Wisconsin Vision will provide eye screening and free glasses for all students.

MPS has many serious challenges. But we must never forget that MPS remains the only institution in this city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to educate all children.

As MPS searches for a new superintendent, it is imperative that the school board build on the strengths of the district’s educators, parents, students and broader community.

It’s time to say no to privatization schemes that cater to out-of-state educational entrepreneurs. Our children, our schools, and our democracy are not for sale.

Bob Peterson is President of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association.
Published in the print edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 2, 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wisconsin Republicans Attack Democracy and Children

Republican legislators, using the rhetoric of “accountability,” are aiming for the jugular of public education. A fast-track bill now before the Wisconsin Senate calls for the wholesale privatization of public schools in the state, in particular Milwaukee.

The bill’s consequences are obfuscated by bureaucratic double-speak, arcane details and complicated loopholes. Fundamentally, however, the bill is a frontal attack on public schools, on democracy, and on poor children. It undermines the Wisconsin constitution’s guarantee of a free and public education to all children. 

Under the bill, “failing” public schools will be forced to close or be handed over to privately run charters — whether or not a locally elected school board thinks this is a good idea, and whether or not the school board has a community-based improvement plan.

Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill is a blueprint for turning over public schools to privately run charters, in particular national McFranchise charter chains.

Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill demands failure. It requires that at least 5 percent of the schools get a grade of “F” every year — no matter how the school is actually performing.

Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill sets up schools as failures and then uses this failure to promote privatization.

Devil is in the Details
The bill transforms the current state report card system into A-F letter grades. The bill states that any  school that receives “a grade of F for three consecutive school years, or has received a grade of F in three of five consecutive school years and a grade no higher than D in the other two school years” will be subjected to sanctions.

These provisions apply to all publicly funded schools through Wisconsin — traditional public schools, privately run charters, and private voucher schools. But there’s a catch. Consequences for public schools are more drastic, particularly the Milwaukee Public Schools.

“F” and “D” grades will be counted against MPS this school year. Failing grades will not be counted against non-MPS schools for another two years.

As is well documented, there is a correlation between poverty and the legislature’s definition of “low performing.” The bill’s impact will be felt most by MPS, where 81 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The Republican-dominated legislature is known for its antipathy toward Milwaukee, the state’s largest and most important city. But Milwaukee also happens to vote Democratic and is home to a disproportionate number of poor people and people of color.

Not surprisingly the bill could spell the death knell for the Milwaukee Public Schools, already reeling from decades of privatization via vouchers and privately run charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Weak Sanctions for Charters
The bill sets up dual standards for traditional public schools and privately run charters. For instance, a privately run charter’s first five years won’t count when it comes to determining possible sanctions. Second, grades for privately run charters (almost all of which are in Milwaukee) will not be counted for another two years. As I noted above, grades for MPS schools will be taken into account beginning this school year.

Weakest Provisions for Vouchers
As for the bill’s alleged concern with “accountability,” the most blatant hypocrisy involves private voucher schools. Failing voucher schools will not be required to close, but merely prevented from enrolling additional students.

To cite another glaring problem: the bill does not require voucher schools to adhere to the state’s open meetings and records laws. Nor does the bill call upon voucher schools to respect basic constitutional rights of due process or free speech, or adhere to state anti-discrimination measures in the areas of sexual orientation, marital status or pregnancy.

But here’s the bill’s most blatant hypocritical move. Voucher schools will not be required to take the same achievement tests as other publicly funded schools. Instead, they will be allowed to use a “nationally recognized, norm-referenced” test, thus making it difficult to compare achievement between public schools and voucher schools. Call me suspicious, but is this because the voucher school students have performed worse than MPS students on the Wisconsin achievement tests?

Direct Target: MPS
The bill’s authors have done nothing to hide their preference for voucher and privately run charter schools, a preference that harms public schools across the state. But there is one final kick specifically aimed at MPS.

Across the state, the school boards will be forced to turn schools over to privately run charter organizations, but at least they will have the fig leaf of a voice and must approve the contract. In Milwaukee, the superintendent can act on his own.

It’s unclear how the bill will play across the state. But stay tuned. Rumors are that the bill is being re-crafted so that it is “less favorable” to the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

School Board Committee Acts Against Privatization at Ground Zero

            Supporters of public education and democracy won a well-deserved victory in Milwaukee this week. Now we need to protect that victory.

            After two hours of testimony from an overflow crowd of parents, teachers, students, and community members, a Milwaukee School Board committee removed privately run charter schools from a plan to improve “low performing” schools in the district. The issue goes before the full school board on Thursday.

            Milwaukee is ground zero in the school privatization wars. For a quarter of century there has been a calculated, well-financed, and systematic effort to dismantle the city’s public school system. Conservatives in Wisconsin, emboldened by their control of the state government, have stepped up their efforts to transform public education into a privately run commodity.

            But there is a growing pushback. Teachers and community members are increasingly aware of the essential links between public education, public accountability and democracy.


            In 1990, the state legislature allowed private schools in Milwaukee to receive public dollars; before long Milwaukee had the country’s largest publicly funded voucher program. Interestingly, Milwaukee voters have never been allowed to vote on the voucher program. Likewise, when the state legislature expanded a voucher program across the state last year, the public never voted on the expansion.

            Today, there are about 110 voucher schools in Milwaukee, and 85 percent are religious-based. (Exact numbers for the voucher schools are elusive. Just last month, a voucher school closed in the middle of the night.)

            Over the years the Milwaukee voucher program has eaten up almost $1.3 billion in public tax dollars — and an additional $161 million this year. Yet the voucher schools perform no better on state-administered tests, and in many cases worse, than MPS students.

            Milwaukee is also a national leader in promoting privately run charter schools. In 1998, the City of Milwaukee became the nation’s first city government to establish privately run schools. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was also empowered to charter schools.

            In Wisconsin, such charters are described as “independent.” In practice, “independent” is a euphemism for easing the public out and turning schools over to private entities. “Privately run” is a far better description.

            In Milwaukee, as is the case in districts elsewhere, these privately run charters, tend to serve fewer English Language Learners or students with special needs. Overall, the City of Milwaukee and UWM charter schools serve two-thirds fewer students who are English Language Learners, and half as many students with special needs, when compared to MPS schools, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.


            The Milwaukee Public Schools administration and school board have been pressured to charter more privately run charter schools.

            Currently, there are 15 privately run charter schools under contract with MPS. Most of these schools service considerably fewer students with special needs than MPS schools. (Enrollment in the district’s privately run schools has only 11 percent students with special needs compared to the district’s average of 21.3 percent. The disparity with “most restrictive placement” (MRP) students is even more glaring. According to district data, of the students with special needs in the district’s privately-run schools, only 5 percent are MRP, compared to 22 percent in traditional public schools.)  

            The administration wants to increase the number of privately run schools. Responding to community pressure, the school board committee on Thursday took a bold step towards respecting community, democracy, and public accountability. Three committee members – Larry Miller, Terry Falk and Meagan Holman – voted to drop the administration’s plan to bring in more privately run charters.
            In the coming days, intense pressure will be placed on MPS board members to capitulate to the privatizers. The issue will be obfuscated. But this is the fundamental question: Will public education be guided by principles of democracy or by the demands of privatization. Will Milwaukee’s publicly funded schools serve the communities where they are located, or will they be turned over to national McFranchise charter chains?

            There are inherent links between public schools, democracy and community. The right to a public education is enshrined in the Wisconsin Constitution. Furthermore, the Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all students.

            We need to improve our public schools, not dismantle them.

            Final action on the committee’s recommendation will be taken at the full board meeting Thursday night, January 30.

            Demand that the entire the Milwaukee School Board say “no” to privatization and say “yes” to community-based solutions.

To read a copy of my testimony I presented at the School Board hearing click here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wisconsin Grinches Attack Teachers

Wisconsin Republicans are outgrinching Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.

Like the Grinch who swooped into Whoville to steal all the Christmas gifts, the Wisconsin Grinches will invade villages and hamlets through out the state to steal the right to organize unions during this holiday season.

On Thursday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court vacated a contempt of court ruling by a lower court. The result: for the first three weeks of December – perhaps starting as soon as the day after Thanksgiving – tens of thousands of teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, janitors and other public sector workers will be forced to “recertify” their unions.

The Republicans wrote the recertification requirements to make it as hard as possible to win – unions need support from 51% of all workers eligible to be in the union, not just those who vote.

“Only in Walker's Wisconsin can a union get 329 ‘yes’ votes and 14 ‘no’ votes and lose a certification election,” a veteran Wisconsin labor leader commented on a recent recertification election of an AFSCME education local.

A History of Attacks
The Republican’s attack on public sector unions in the past few years has followed a game plan similar to that of Seuss’s Grinch who left “nothing but hooks and some wire” and only a “crumb that was even too small for a mouse.”

It wasn’t enough for Gov. Scott Walker and the Koch brothers-financed legislative henchmen to outlaw Fairshare and payroll dues deduction.

It wasn’t enough that they eviscerated collective bargaining rights for any and all public sector unions (except for the few unions that endorsed Walker for governor in 2010).

Nor did the largest cuts to public education in Wisconsin history satiate the thirst of those who would replace democratically controlled public institutions with private marketplace options. This summer the legislature expanded a failed private school voucher program from Milwaukee to all corners of the state.

The Republican’s claim that the purpose of the voucher expansion was to provide a “choice” to beleaguered public school students proved to be a sham when the DPI released enrollment data. Under the new statewide program nearly 75% of the voucher recipients did not transfer from public schools, but were already enrolled in the religious schools. The essence of the program: transfer of public funds to private schools.

Universal Human Right
On November 21 the Supreme Court resuscitated one of the most toxic provisions of Act 10 – the requirement that public sectors unions annually “recertify.”

The recertification provision is unprecedented in US labor relations and is a direct attack on the universal human right to organize unions. The United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) states, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

While numerous provisions of Act 10 have seriously compromised the people’s “right to form and join trade unions,” this December public sector workers will reminded of the odious aspects and consequences of the recertification provision:
  • A recertification election every year.
  • A 51% “yes” vote of all those eligible to be in the union, not just of those who vote. (A standard that, if applied to elected officials such as Governor Walker, would mean they are not actually elected.)
  • 51%, instead of 50% + 1, the universally established definition of a “majority”
  • That the unions pay for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission to conduct the vote. For the MTEA that’s an annual cost of several thousand dollars.
  • The entire process diverts time and resources of teachers and their unions away from important matters such improving teaching and learning and advocating for their students.

Fight Back Against the Grinches
Despite these toxic requirements, I’m confident that majority of union locals across the state will “recertify” this holiday season.

When Dr. Seuss’s Grinch came to Whoville and stole all the Christmas presents, the Whos did not despair. They joined together in song and demonstrated the true meaning of Christmas.
This holiday season when the Grinches of Wisconsin descend on towns and cities across the state to steal the “right to form and join unions” I believe teachers, educational assistants, secretaries and janitors will join together in songs such as “Solidarity Forever” and vote “yes” for their union.

We will stand up to the Grinches of Wisconsin. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

WI Supreme Court to hear Act 10 but excludes six unions from oral arguments

On Monday the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Act 10, the anti-collective bargaining law that led to the largest worker uprising in Wisconsin history in the spring of 2011.  

Late Friday night the Court issued an order barring six unions from participating in the oral arguments. Those unions had successfully filed suit asking Dane County Circuit Court Judge Colas to find the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) in contempt of court, thus prohibiting the WERC from conducting “recertification” elections that were to have started November 1. The mandatory annual recertification elections were one of several anti-worker components of Act 10.

The three dissenting judges in Friday night’s 4-3 ruling called the denial, “unfair and illogical.”

They noted that both the defendants and the plaintiffs suggested that the six unions and the WERC be allocated 10 or 15 minutes each to make their arguments regarding the contempt of court finding which the Supreme Court is going to be ruling on as part of the overall case.

The majority denied that request.

The dissenting judges wrote, “the court’s order today undermines this court’s role as a neutral, fair, impartial and non-partisan arbiter by excluding (without adequate explanation) the victorious-at-the-circuit-court unions from arguing at the supreme court about the contempt motion that the unions filed and won at the circuit court.”

The six unions that successfully sought and won the contempt of court finding include WEAC (which includes the MTEA); AFT-Wisconsin; SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin; Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals; Kenosha Education Association; and District Council 40, AFSCME.

The original case, Madison Teachers, Inc. v. Scott Walker, will be argued by Madison attorney Lester Pines representing the MTI. The other plaintiff is Public Employees Local 61, AFL-CI0.

The only other time Act 10 came to the Wisconsin Supreme Court was on a procedural matter regarding whether the way the Republicans passed the law violated the states open meetings law.  During deliberation there was a physical confrontation between two justices. Conservative Justice David Prosser put his hands around the neck of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Crucial Milwaukee Vote on Public School Plan

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, the Milwaukee Common Council is expected to vote on the Milwaukee School Board’s proposal to sell the Malcolm X school property to a community-based developer so that the broader community can be served and so that a new, high-quality public middle school can be established.

The back story is complicated, but boils down to a conflict between pro-public education forces led by the democratically elected school board versus corporate-driven, pro-market education forces led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC).

It appears that the majority of the Common Council members will support the MPS proposal, but nothing is certain. Public school supporters should contact their alderperson on Monday to insist they support the public schools.

The MMAC has a long history of supporting voucher schools and privately-run charter schools. Their financial and political support has spanned decades, and included multiple fights at state and local levels.  The MMAC initiatives have garnered support from conservative forces like the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation and Walton Foundation.

Most recently the MMAC has promoted a “recovery” or “achievement” zone in Milwaukee, patterned after similar corporate-backed school privatization schemes in New Orleans and Memphis.

Tuesday’s Vote
When St. Marcus School, a publicly-financed voucher school, attempted to pressure the Milwaukee School Board to sell it the Malcolm X school site, the school board refused. The MMAC stepped in and had their staff draft legislation that Senator Alberta Darling introduced into the state legislature. That legislation, SB 318 would force MPS to sell “surplus” property to private school operators.

Because all school property is technically owned by the city of Milwaukee, property transactions of the school board have to get final approval by the city government. The MMAC and the privatization advocates have been working to convince alderpeople to turn down the school board plan.

Some council members have raised concerns about St. Marcus after they realized that the church is part of the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The church and synod have a pro-creationist, anti-Catholic, homophobic theology. It does not allow women to vote for the Church Council, which in turn appoints the School Council, the head of which has to be a male.

MPS on the other hand requires school councils to be elected by parents (male AND female). The Milwaukee School Board’s intention is to have the Malcolm X site be a multi-use venue with low-income housing, a cultural and artists center and a public middle school.  

The City Council has had a weak record when it comes to protecting public schools. Milwaukee was the first city in the nation to get authority to charter their own privately-run charter schools. The city has done so with little public oversight or accountability. There is little understanding of the negative impact such schools have had on MPS. A recent report showed that the Milwaukee Public Schools have three times as many English Language Learners and twice as many special education students as the privately-run charter schools chartered by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Two years ago, the MMAC and the pro-privatization group, Schools that Can-Milwaukee, pressured the Common Council and Mayor to approve an  “umbrella charter” allowing for eight Rocketship schools in the city.  The first Rocketship School opened this past August on the near south side. Opposition by community groups were partially responsible for Rocketship not reaching its goals.

Tim Sheehy, President of the MMAC is also President of the Rocketship Milwaukee Board of Directors. The MMAC, Rocketship, Wisconsin School Choice, and St. Marcus School all testified in Madison in favor of Senator Darling’s “land grab” bill.

Community opposition to the bill and to the attempt by St. Marcus to take over the Malcolm X site has been strong. Last month the Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover held a massive press conference in front of North Division High School. News reports and video demonstrate the depth of opposition. A large "Public Education is a Civil Right" march in September targetted MMAC's takeover plan. 

The Milwaukee Common Council has an opportunity this Tuesday to show the people of Milwaukee that they support the Milwaukee Public Schools. They can do so by voting to support the plan proposed by the democratically elected school board.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Rethinking Columbus in New Zealand

People in New Zealand know the truth about Columbus. At least Radio New Zealand broadcaster Wayne Brittenden does. Check out the letter he wrote/read to Columbus.

I was then interviewed. Perhaps the most interesting thing I talked about was how I have my fifth graders put Columbus et al on trial for genocide each fall. It's a powerful activity because it requires group research and understanding, engaging critical thinking, public speaking, multicultural-anti-racism and powerful content (the truth about the European invasion).

To say nothing of popping the Columbus Discovery myth. 

Check out the 18 minute interview here.

Check out the book Rethinking Columbus here. A multicultural bestseller-- Banned in Tucson

Let's continue to Rethink Columbus and all types of colonial oppression and relationships.