Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Walker Deserves an “F” for his attack on Milwaukee Public Schools

 Just days before children started the new school year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker leveled charges against the Milwaukee Public Schools and exposed a level of ignorance about the conditions of African Americans that surprised even his most ardent critics.


Chuck Todd of Meet the Press interviewed Walker for the August 30 show, and in a segment available only in the on-line version, he asked Walker:
“There is a higher incarceration rate for African American men in Wisconsin than anywhere in the country, … a study that said African American children in Wisconsin ranked 50th in the nation when it comes to opportunity, and the African American unemployment is double the national average. Why is it?”
Walker’s response: 
“It’s the sad truth. It’s been true for decades. Part of it, I think, is some of the poor policies in the city of Milwaukee. We pushed back on it. You look at the Milwaukee Public School system has a real challenge and one of the big disparities… has been there. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been such an advocate long before I was governor for school choice….”

A few moments later Chuck Todd interrupted Walker, “Like this is on Milwaukee – there’s not much more you could have done.”
“Right now… we’ve done all sorts of things. We put out hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild the economy out there but again you have to have leaders who are willing to use the tools we have given them…. As president I am going to try empower cities, towns, and villages of all different sizes to have more freedom and more liberties to do things without the restrictions from Washington and without some of the restrictions you see one of the biggest areas of big government and union control as commonplace has been Milwaukee.”
As his sole example, Walked talked about the case of Megan Sampson, a high-school English teacher who was laid off from Milwaukee Public Schools in 2010. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, “Walker has used her as the face of Act 10, his signature bill that curtailed collective bargaining for most public employee unions. Since Walker referenced her in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011, Sampson has asked Walker to stop using her story and renewed her calls this year when Walker began using it in presidential campaign appearances.”

What’s wrong with Walker’s statements?

Walker asserts that Milwaukee Public Schools is the main reason for Wisconsin’s high incarceration rate of black males, the high black unemployment rate, and the fact that our state is worst in the country in protecting the well-being of African American children, based on 12 key indicators. Really?

Keep in mind that Wisconsin’s incarceration rate of African American males is 12.8% – the highest of any state in the nation, twice the national average – in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As Schools and Communities United pointed out in its document Fulfill the Promise: The Schools and Communities Our Children Deserve, these statistics are only part of what it called the New Jim Crow. Metropolitan Milwaukee is the most residentially segregated metropolitan area in the nation between blacks and white and between rich and poor. It has second highest black poverty rate (39.2%, 4.9x great than white) among the 40 large benchmark metropolitan areas. It has the lowest percentage of Hispanic-owned businesses among the top 36 metropolitan areas. And just this week the New York Times reported that Milwaukee has had the greatest percentage increase in homicides among all cities in the nation.

Walker made no reference to these daunting problems, nor to any serious plans to address these issues of increasing inequality and racial injustice.

Walker, has offered two "solutions” to these problems. 1) Dismantle the public schools and provide taxpayer dollars to private, unaccountable schools. 2) Strip the right to collectively bargain on a range of issues from most public sector unions and local democratically elected governmental bodies.

For a quarter of a century vouchers have been a conservative’s dream – no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations – and what has been the result? Vouchers schools on the whole perform worse than the Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee has had the largest city-based private school voucher program. If it is as great as Walker implies why hasn’t it improved school outcomes for children or solved these larger social problems? One thing it has done, is transfer more than $1.2 billion tax payer dollars to private schools.

Moreover, Walker’s scapegoating of educators, public schools, teacher unions and local school boards distracts people from the serious conversations and actions needed to address these complex problems.

Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all students. Like other public institutions it reflects our nation’s historic problems of institutional racism, and class and gender bias. And like most large school systems it is dealing with many problems not of its own making: homelessness, children and families lacking health care, poverty, stable housing and family sustaining jobs. 

What’s refreshing about MPS is that the school board, administration, the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and most of its dedicated staff are committed to addressing and overcoming these school-related problems and being part of community-wide efforts to help solve the larger social problems that affect us all. The recent initiative between MPS, the MTEA, United Way and community groups like MICAH and Schools and Communities United  to build the community school model at four MPS schools is one such example.

The fundamental question for presidential wannabes like Governor Walker, is whether they will join with the broader community to improve and fully fund our public schools, or continue down the failed path of abandoning the public schools while spending hundreds of millions of dollars of tax payers money on private, unaccountable entities.

Until we see that change, Governor Walker continue to receive an “F” in my grade book.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Walker Shows His Real Politics: Destroy the commons starting with public schools

Governor Scott Walker signed a biennial state budget Sunday afternoon that accelerates his quest to destroy the public sector in Wisconsin. Within 24 hours, Walker will formally announce his candidacy for president to take his right-wing agenda nationwide.

The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools. Among its measures are an expansion of a voucher program that provides taxpayer funding of private schools and cuts of $250 million to the state’s nationally renowned public university system.

Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and some people had hoped that he might ameliorate some of the more draconian measures of his budget, which was approved by the Republican controlled legislature last week. But Walker by and large let the 1,500-page budget intact, using his line-by-line veto powers to make minor tweaks.

There is one common theme to Walker’s budget: underfunding public institutions, expanding the privatization of government functions, restricting environmental protections, and decimating workers’ rights. Among its many provisions:
• Mandatory drug testing for those seeking unemployment insurance and public assistance services;
• A repeal of “prevailing wage law” requirements for local government projects, and elimination of a state mandate that factory and retail workers get at least one day off per week.
• Removing the term ”‘living wage” from state statues, referring only to a minimum wage, which in Wisconsin is $7.25 per hour.
• Decreases subsidies for recycling,
• Eliminates dozens of scientists’ position at the Department of Natural Resources, opens up thousands of acres in state forests to commercial timber cutting, restricts local zoning along lake shorelines and raises user fees at state parks.

Walker’s most damaging and telling attack on the public sector involves education.

The University of Wisconsin took a massive $250 million budget cut. In addition, tenure is no longer protected by state law but instead will be determined by the University’s Board of Regents, most of whom are gubernatorial appointees.

K-12 public schools were particularly decimated. Shortly before the budget’s signing, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers publicly requested that Walker veto more than 20 education measures that would undermine the state’s public schools. Walker refused.

Instead, the budget continues Walker’s agenda of undermining public education.

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. (For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s law prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital or pregnancy status. Nor are they subject to the state’s open meetings and records requirements.)

The budget also creates a new and complicated  “special needs voucher” law that was opposed by all special education advocacy groups because of its detrimental effect on special education protections.

The budget also increases the number of authorizers of privately run charter schools that are not subject to the oversight of publicly elected local school boards.

In previous years, all publicly funded schools in Wisconsin — traditional public schools, voucher schools, charter schools — were required to take the same standardized tests, in order to have some semblance of comparing student achievement. The budget eliminates that requirement.

In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a “takeover” plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a “commissioner” who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up five every year thereafter.

Perhaps most indicative of Walker’s perspective is the budget’s elimination of the Chapter 220 urban-metropolitan schools desegregation program. At a time when racism and racial tensions have reached alarming levels across the United States, Walker has eliminated the only program in the state designed to counter segregation in the public schools and improve opportunities for African-Americans.

Walker signed the budget in Waukesha County, an overwhelmingly white county that is among one of the wealthiest and most conservative in the entire United States.

On Monday, Walker will return to Waukesha and officially launch his bid for President. It is an apt indication of which side he will protect in what is an increasingly divided and unequal country.


photo credit: Barbara J. Miner

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Walker’s Budget Undermines Public Education, with Bull’s-eye on Milwaukee

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to do two things in the next few days: Formally announce his candidacy for President and sign Wisconsin’s biennial budget.

The first may receive national attention, but it is the second that will disastrously affect Wisconsin — and that should receive national play.

Buried within the budget are 135 non-budget policy items — a toxic cocktail of attacks on public education, democracy, environmental protections and labor rights.

For Wisconsin’s schools, the budget is a blueprint for abandoning public education. In Milwaukee, in addition to insufficient funding, the budget includes a “takeover” plan that increases privatization and decreases democratic control of the city’s public schools.

The budget was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate a few minutes before midnight Tuesday, with all Democrats and one Republican voting “no”. The Assembly is expected to pass the budget Wednesday and send it to Walker by the end of the week.

The attack on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is in the context of a frontal assault on public education across the state. The budget cuts $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, holds overall K-12 funding flat in the first year with modest increases in the second (which, given inflation, means cuts). And while programs promoting privately-run charters are expanded, the budget eliminates Chapter 220 — a metropolitan-wide program designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color.

The budget is also expanding the statewide voucher program, under which tax dollars are funneled  into private, overwhelmingly religious schools. (The program is modeled after Milwaukee’s private school voucher program which began in 1990 and which now includes 112 schools and 25,000 students.)

The “takeover” plan for Milwaukee, where nearly two-thirds of the state’s African-American population live, was proposed by two white suburban legislators, Sen. Alberta Darling (R) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R). Because the plan was inserted into the budget rather than proposed in a separate bill, there was never a public hearing.

The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a “commissioner” who will have parallel power with the elected school board overseeing MPS. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up five every year thereafter.

The take-over plan is replete with problems that are indicative of Governor Walker’s approach to public policy and the public sector. These problems include:

1) Expands failed policies. The notion of  improving public schools by turning them over to private charter or voucher operators has been tried before — and failed.
For 25 years, voucher schools in Milwaukee have been a conservative’s dream – no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations – and what has been the result? Vouchers schools on the whole perform worse than the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the last quarter century, vouchers schools have drained over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money away from Milwaukee students who depend on the public schools. This  under-resourcing of public schools means larger class sizes, less individual attention and greatly reduced access to art, music libraries and physical education compared with suburban counter parts.

2) Undermines democracy. Elected school boards and lack of choices are not the problem with our schools. Milwaukee arguably has more publicly funded school options than any urban system in the country, from citywide and neighborhood-based public schools, to MPS charter schools, to city-controlled charter schools, to charters run by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to private voucher schools, to open enrollment that includes suburban districts. The rhetoric around governance is a smokescreen to get rid of democratically elected school boards and publicly controlled schools. Yes, democracy can be messy, but the alternative is worse. If we decide to abandon every democratic institution that is not up to our hopes and dreams, why not get rid of the U.S. Congress? Or the Wisconsin Legislature?

3) Exacerbates inequality. Data show that privately run charter and voucher schools serve significantly fewer students with special needs, English language learners and more difficult to educate students. Students are counseled out and pushed back into public schools. The “takeover” plan will only increase this problem.

4) Continues Milwaukee’s plantation mentality. Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. It should give pause when two white suburban legislators propose having a white county executive appoint a “commissioner” who can  pluck schools away from the democratically elected school board of an overwhelmingly nonwhite district.

No one denies that the Milwaukee Public Schools need to do a better job. Yet the state budget expands a disturbing history of abandonment, which will only makes matter worse.  

Despite its problems, the Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all our students. Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and of our future.

When we abandon our public schools, we not only abandon democracy, we abandon our children’s future.

Gov. Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and can literally change the budget line by line. How he uses that veto pen will foretell his national plans as he enters the Republican presidential primary.


In Wisconsin, where we have four years of experience with Walker, we expect him to continue his policies of abandoning public institutions, hurting the poor, and undermining the middle class. Hopefully, national observers will see through Walker’s rhetoric and analyze the realities of his state budget.



Thursday, July 2, 2015

Schools and Communities United Stands in Solidarity with Milwaukee Transit Workers

The following is the speech given by Bob Peterson on July 2, 2015 on behalf of Schools and Communities United at a rally in support of the Milwaukee Transit Workers (ATU) in their struggle for respect and a fair contract.


Hello Milwaukee Transit Workers!

The Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and Schools andCommunities United stand in solidarity with you.

Schools and Communities United is a coalition of over 20 community organizations working to improve and defend public schools.

But quality public schools will only happen in healthy neighborhoods. So we fight for both the schools and the communities that our children deserve.

And our children and their families deserve a community with a strong public transit system, a system that treats its workers with respect and dignity and provides adequate compensation.

If it’s public, Gov. Walker and County Executive Abele want it defunded and turned over to private interests. Whether it’s our public university, our public schools, public radio, public TV, public health care, public natural resources, or public transportation — it’s on Walker’s hit list. And all too often it’s on Abele’s hit list as well.

Chris Abele previously collaborated with Walker and Republican legislators to eviscerate the power of the County Board.

Now Abele is collaborating with two suburban legislators -- Senator Darling and Representative Kooyenga to attack the Milwaukee Public Schools. They plan to have Abele appoint a commissioner who would have equal power of the elected school board --  power to take over dozens of  Milwaukee public schools and turn them over to private operators.

These attacks – on Milwaukee Transit Workers and on MPS have two things in common.

First they are attacks on two essential public services like schools and transit that serve ALL people.

Second they are taking place in the most hyper segregated metropolitan area in the nation where white power brokers think they can ride rough shod over communities of color – whether it’s white suburban legislators putting a white County Executive in charge of a commissioner to take over public schools that serve mainly students of color. or whether it’s a white County Executive who ignores the fact that the vast majority of transit workers in this city are African American. I call that racism. 


Schools and Communities United calls on the people of Milwaukee to stand with the Milwaukee transit workers and demand that the all public services be fully funded and kept public!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A failed idea will fail Milwaukee’s kids

During my 30 years of teaching fifth grade, I’ve always encouraged my students to look critically at problems and to learn from mistakes.

Sen. Darling’s and Rep. Kooyenga’s plan to take over public schools in Milwaukee does neither. 

The few details in their plan provide no framework for actually improving academic achievement. Equally important, the plan ignores the Milwaukee community’s experience with similar efforts to dismantle our public schools and undermine our democratic institutions.

There are several glaring problems with the Darling/Kooyenga plan.

1) Not learning from mistakes. Attempting to improve public schools by turning them over to private charter or voucher operators has been tried before — and failed. For 25 years vouchers have been a conservative’s dream – no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations. What has been the result? Vouchers schools on the whole perform worse academically than the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Vouchers schools have drained over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money away from public schools and into private schools with little public accountability. The defunding of public schools has meant larger class sizes, less individual attention to students and greatly reduced access to art, music, libraries and physical education within Milwaukee’s public schools. Let’s fully fund our public schools and fix them, not abandon them.

2) Undermines democracy. Governance is not the problem with our schools — Milwaukee arguably has more governance options than any urban system in the country.  The rhetoric around governance in the Darling/Kooyenga scheme is a smokescreen to get rid of democratically elected and accountable school boards and schools. 

There are two ways to undermine democracy. First by attacking voter rights through limiting early voting options and requiring photo IDs. Another way is to remove entire institutions from democratic control. Yes, democracy can be messy, but the alternative is worse. If we decide to abandon every democratic institution that is not up to our hopes and dreams, why not get rid of the U.S. Congress? Or the Wisconsin legislature?

3) Part of a coordinated attack. The Darling/Kooyenga plan can’t be viewed in isolation. It’s in the context of Walker’s budget that continues deep cuts in public education across the state, and increases statewide privatization of public schools. In addition, Walker’s budget eliminates Chapter 220 – the only educational program in Milwaukee designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color.

4) Exacerbates inequality. Data show that privately-run charter and voucher schools serve significantly fewer students with special needs, English language learners and more difficult to educate students. Students are counseled out and pushed back into public schools. The Kooyenga/Darling plan will only increase this problem.

5) Refusal to learn from other urban areas. Other urban districts have tried similar takeovers, with disastrous results. A takeover plan in Detroit is costing the state $72 million, with the mayor raising strong objections. In Memphis, several national charter operators have repeatedly proposed new schools, only to abruptly cancel their plans. And in New Orleans, thousands of students — including those with special needs — are being underserved. Let’s learn from, not replicate, the problems that have come up in these other cities.

6) Continues Milwaukee’s Plantation Mentality. The plan’s colonial implications — what MICAH President Rev. Willy Brisco calls the “plantation” mentality that dominates social policy in Milwaukee — are disturbing.  Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. Sixty years ago the U.S. Supreme court, in its Brown decision that was fundamental to overthrowing Jim Crow segregation, noted that “separate is inherently unequal.” It should give people pause when two white suburban legislators propose having a white County Executive appoint a “commissioner” to be able to pluck schools away from the democratically elected school board of an overwhelmingly non-white district.

If we want to truly provide equal education opportunities, why not try something truly radical. Why not build a countywide school system – democratically elected and controlled and open to all children, regardless of the ZIP code where they were born. Not only would this open up well-funded schools with excellent opportunities and learning conditions to the children of Milwaukee, it would attack the dual problems of segregation and inequality that plague our region.

7) Sending the wrong message to our children. What message do we send to the next generation when we condone a plan to remove control of public institutions from a democratically elected board? When we undermine a Superintendent with a Doctorate from Harvard University and instead place public schools in the hands of a “commissioner” to be appointed by a county executive who doesn't even have a college degree and was not elected to run schools? When we allow a plan that specifically says the children of Milwaukee do not need licensed teachers?

These are just some of the many problems in the Darling/Kooyenga plan.

This proposal should be rejected by anyone who believes in democracy and the importance of educating all children.

The Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all our students.


Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and of our future. Let’s unite to support and improve our public schools, not abandon them.
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This op ed was published in the May 17, 2015 print edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

WI GOP Legislators Plan to Takeover Milwaukee’s Poorest Public Schools -- A racist attack on democracy and public schools

Wisconsin State Senator Darling and Assembly Kooyenga recently issued new version of their “recovery zone”proposal for the Milwaukee Public Schools. Their proposal to take over several of Milwaukee’s public schools is an insult to the Milwaukee community and is part of a larger plan to privatize schools throughout the state. I call on all people who believe in public schools and democracy to oppose this plan.
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. The Commissioner will be able to privatize five schools a year under this proposal.
This proposal is replete with false assumptions, misguided assertions, and unworkable ideas. It would be laughable if not for the fact that anti-Milwaukee bias and anti-public education sentiment among some power brokers in Madison make this threat real.
Twenty-five years of experience with voucher and charter schools in Milwaukee has proven that turning schools over to private operators is not a silver bullet for improving academic achievement. There is no guarantee that students at a privatized school will perform better.
The false assumptions and assertions of Darling and Kooyenga’s plan include the following:
1) The basic “solution” proposed by Darling and Kooyenga is that their “new governance structure in MPS [is] to free students from nonperforming schools.” The assertion that there is a need to provide “new opportunities” to parents and students ignores the fact that the city of Milwaukee has more school options for parents to choose from than virtually any other city in the nation.
2) The assumption that privatizing schools” will improve educational achievement in Milwaukee ignores the fact that after a quarter of a century of massive school “choice” in Milwaukee, there is little evidence showing improved educational achievement.
3) Labeling schools “failing” due to low test scores is wrong. There are a multiplicity of factors – such as low attendance, concentrated poverty, impact of high levels of students with special needs or English language learners – that may contribute to low scores. This does not mean the school is failing. In fact, it is a signal that other institutions in our society are failing.
4) The assertion that “consequences of these ‘failing schools’ are a significant factor in contributing to Milwaukee’s declining economic and social health” shows little understanding of the social, economic, and political history of our city. It ignores the long history of racial segregation in housing, schools and jobs, the devastating consequences of the corporate decisions to move tens of thousands of family sustaining jobs out of Milwaukee, and the hyper-segregation and growing inequality and joblessness that plagues our city.
5) There is no cost estimate or funding source provided for the “Commissioner’s” work, which according to the proposal, includes doing a qualitative analysis of 55 schools and directly managing several schools or supervising charter operators.
6) Under the proposal parents, students and community members are stripped of their democratic rights as to the future of their schools because power will be transferred from the democratically elected school board to an appointed “Commissioner.” The Commissioner will have unilateral authority to choose schools that will be taken from the public school system and privatized.
7) Educators at the privatized schools will be required to “waive current and future privileges to be represented by any union,” which is contrary to federal law governing private sector employers.
8) Apparently the educators at the schools established by the Commissioner will not have to have a teacher or administrator license because, “employees shall receive non-portable licenses as requested by the commissioner.”

Sign the petition against the recover zone and this proposal 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Walker's Budget: Hypocritical and Racist


Testimony before the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin • March 20, 2015
Bob Peterson, President of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association


I have taught 10 and 11 year-old children for 30 years in MPS.

When I taught at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood I had the opportunity to see the power of Chapter 220. White students from Mequon and Whitefish Bay used 220 to take advantage of our school’s two-way bilingual program as their parents wanted their children to learn two languages with student of many races. Over the years, I’ve heard from those parents and students what a valuable experience it was in their lives.

Of course, that is a side benefit of the program. The power of the program is that it provides. African-American children the right to access educational opportunities in the suburbs, something that was out of reach for most families given the Milwaukee regions’ hyper segregation.

Today metropolitan Milwaukee is #1 in the nation in black/white residential segregation and # 1 in residential segregation based on poverty.

Is it not odd that when the State Legislature has gone out of its way to expand taxpayer funded private school options throughout the state, the one “choice” program on the chopping block is the only one that reduces racial isolation and segregation?

Ending Chapter 220 when expanding vouchers and charters is at best hypocritical and at worst racist.

In addition, the funds provided to MPS for Chapter 220 are significant and without those, MPS would be face a serious fiscal crisis with dire consequences for the students.

Instead of ending Chapter 220 increase support for public education, the foundation of our democracy.

Public school systems in our communities are the only institutions have the have the capacity, commitment and legal obligations to serve all students. While it may be seductive to expand taxpayer-funded private schools through vouchers and charters for the few, the result is to limit and degrade the choice for the many.

Vouchers and privately run charters drain money from public schools and do not serve all children. They serve fewer students with special needs, fewer English Language learners and regularly push back to public schools the hardest to educate children.


History will be the judge. Will the 2015 Wisconsin State Legislature continue to undermine Wisconsin public schools through funneling millions to private schools or will you recognize the necessity to support public schools as the corner stone of our democracy?