Saturday, March 24, 2012

The MPS Children's Campaign - A Call for Support

Following are highlights from a presentation by Bob Peterson to union members on the proposal for a MPS Children’s Campaign. The remarks, given on March 20 at the Italian Community Center, were part of a series of meetings with members of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

We are here because our future is in jeopardy – the future of public education, the future of the children of Milwaukee, and he future of our union. Equally important, our own future is at stake – our jobs, our teaching profession and our families.

Under normal times, the MTEA Executive Board would not be holding these unprecedented meetings to discuss and debate our future.

But these are not normal times. These are challenging and extraordinary times. Such times demand bold and strategic responses.

To protect our future, we need to position our union strategically. We need to think into the future -- the next ten weeks as we work to defeat Scott Walker, the next ten months as we prepare for the non-contract future, and the next ten years as we work to rebuild public education and teaching profession.

The crisis we face did not happen overnight, nor will it be solved overnight. But we need to take action – now. Doing nothing in the face of crisis only leads to more crisis.

We need a bold action to wake up this community, to demonstrate that teachers are at the heart of the solution, and to call upon the community to join us. Our plan does that.

The MPS Children’s Campaign positions our union to head off attacks on Milwaukee teachers that we know will be part of the Republican media blitz in the next ten weeks during the Walker recall.

It also lays the groundwork for us to be stronger politically ten months from now as we prepare for when our contract expires and the school board will have unilateral power over our working future.

And it lays the basis of a long-term, community-wide campaign to protect MPS and the teaching profession – and to demand that this metropolitan community step up and support the only educational institution in Milwaukee that has the commitment, capacity and legal obligation to serve ALL children in the city of Milwaukee.

This is an ambitious agenda. As teachers, we can and will take the lead. But we can’t do it alone.  We need a community-wide campaign that links community, parents and teachers more boldly than ever before.

To jumpstart this campaign and to give it the power it needs, we are asking for teachers to make an investment.

Before I further explain the MPS Children’s Campaign, I want to explain why are in this crisis, and why it requires a proactive plan.

Internationally, political and economic forces – the 1% -- are systematically attacking the public sector, particularly the public schools. They are cutting funding, privatizing schools and services, and attacking public sector workers.

The President of the Australian Education Union, who spoke at Saturday’s meeting, told me how the teachers in Greece all were forced to take a 40% pay cut at a time of 30% inflation — making them suffer a 70% reduction in purchasing power.

Throughout the United States, there are attacks on school budgets and on public schools.

But Wisconsin is at the head of the pack. And a change in Wisconsin could help change the dynamic across the country.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker made the largest cut to public schools in our state’s history, and pushed through the most draconian anti-collective bargaining law in the nation.

Milwaukee is ground zero in the attacks on public education — not just in Wisconsin, but nationally. It has the country’s oldest and largest voucher program, one that is supported by extreme, conservative privatizers and right-wing think tanks and foundations. Milwaukee also has two chartering agencies outside the school district — the city government and UWM, whose schools have minimal democratic oversight and accountability. What’s more, Milwaukee has some of the most distressed neighborhoods in the country, and the metropolitan region’s segregation is so intense that it has earned a national reputation as an example of hypersegregation.

Long before the powers that be abandoned MPS, they abandoned entire neighborhoods and groups of people in our racially and economically segregated metropolitan region. Milwaukee has some of the worst child poverty in the country, some of the highest unemployment among Black men, and some of the widest racial disparities in income, incarceration, and infant mortality.

So we have a perfect storm.  Budget cuts, right wing takeover of our statehouse, the voucher program, and the deteriorating economic and social conditions of our city – all have put our children and our public schools in crisis.

MPS is in such dire straits that in a few years, it could go bankrupt, with the majority of schools being privatized via voucher or charter schools. MPS would become a small district serving only the most difficult to educate kids.

We know there is one thing we cannot do. And that is to do nothing. We can’t pretend that there’s not a freight train coming down the track and is about to hit us. Doing nothing in the face of a crisis leads to deeper crisis.

We need to have our immediate (10 week), short-term (10 month) and long-term (10 year) plan.  We will build on our Reimagine the MTEA structures, including our building level communication structures and advocacy groups.

In the next few weeks, our main focus is on the Walker Recall. The MPS Children’s Campaign will help with the Walker recall. Most important, it will provide a line of defense against the Republicans’ political posturing. We know Walker is going to blame the MPS financial crisis on the teachers’ union and its contracts — and pretend that our district's financial worries would go away if teachers paid more for their healthcare and pensions, and gave up their negotiated pay raises.

If we had done nothing, there would have been only one message before the public: Walker’s message. But we refuse to allow Walker — a man who has done more harm to public schools than any other governor in Wisconsin history — to control the message.

Through the MPS Children’s Campaign, we are putting forward a counter-message that teachers are willing to take the lead in protecting public education — and that teachers will forge necessary alliances with the community.

Recalling Walker is the immediate goal. The ten-month goal is to ensure the survival of our union and the teaching profession.

In 15 months, on June 30, 2013, our teacher contract expires. As a result of Walker’s Act 10, we will then be forced to live in a non-contract world. To prepare for that, within the next ten months, we need to be in such a strong position with community and parent partners that we can help shape that the decisions of the School Board. The School Board will develop a handbook months before the contract actually expires. We need to make sure we have enough allies in the community and on the school board so that the handbook policies are in the interests of the children we teach, and of the professionals and employees who work in this district.

The fact that union members are even considering the proactive response of the MPS Children’s Week, including an investment by teachers, has already been met with positive response from school board members. Board members Michael Bonds, Larry Miller and Terry Falk, for instance, have agreed to pledge a week of their wages to the class size relief fund that is being set up as part of the MPS Children’s Campaign.

We have also received commitments of a week’s wages from MPS Superintendent Greg Thornton, Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers, State Senator Chris Larson and several others.

The MPS Children’s Week campaign has the potential to be the game changer we need. 

- It flips the conversation — away from blaming teachers and MPS students and families, to understanding that teachers, working in alliance with the community are the only force that has the power to save MPS. 
- It deepens and expands our community ties – forging alliances that will be essential to our survival in the fast-approaching non-contract world.
- Challenges the powers that be to match teachers’ contributions. We are demanding of the city’s powerbrokers: no more excuses; support your public schools.
- It is so unexpected and so out of the ordinary that local, state and national media will be forced to take notice.
The longterm goal of our campaign is to protect and improve public education, the teaching profession and the quality of education of children of Milwaukee. We can do this if we build a broad movement of teachers, parents, community and civic organizations.
If there is anything we have learned in the last year, it is the need for collective action.

I have worked in this district as a classroom teacher for over 30 years. I have faith in teachers. And I believe that, working together, we can change the conversation, protect public education, defend the teaching profession, and help ensure a quality education for all children in this city.

In best of all words, our politicians and policymakers would not have let MPS into a wilderness of crisis. As teachers, every day we see the consequences of decades of abandonment of our neighborhoods and our schools on the faces of the children everyday. 

It is now our responsibility – it is our time -- to wake up this community and demand that it do the right thing for our public schools and for our children.

Check out the opinion pieces by MPS teachers Amy Mizialko and Caryl Davis from the March 23 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

For specifics and updates on details of the MPS Children’s Campaign, see the MTEA website.

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