Sunday, April 29, 2012

From Philadelphia to Oconomowoc – How Not to Reform Public Schools

Two vastly different school districts — Oconomowoc, WI, and Philadelphia, PA — had something in common this week. Both boasted of innovations that, when examined, became examples of how not to improve schools. Both chose to forgo parent and teacher input in developing their plans. Both show a lack of respect for the fundamentals of democracy.

Philadelphia, the 8th largest school district in the country, has 192,089 students. Oconomowoc, with 5,081 students, is 35 miles west of Milwaukee.

The Philadelphia plan centers on an aggressive move toward privatization via charter schools run by management companies. The Oconomowoc plan highlights a top-down, anti-teacher reorganization made possible by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining last year.

In Philadelphia, “Chief Recovery Officer” and former gas industry executive Tom Knudsen wants to close 40 low-performing schools in 2013 and another 24 by 2017 — by which time he hopes that 40 percent of all of Philadelphia’s public school students will be in charter schools. His plan also calls for dismantling much of the Central Office and “modernizing” (read, outsourcing to low-wage subcontractors) custodial services, maintenance, and transportation.

Educational historian Diane Ravitch summed up the plan this way: “Close public schools, open privately managed charter schools, cut the budget.” 

Ravitch went on to say: “I didn’t see anything [in the transition plan] that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” she said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning.”

Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist (and Rethinking Schools editorial associate) wrote an open letter to Mr. Knudsen, who in essence is the district’s superintendent, appointed in January by a non-elected School Reform Commission controlled by the governor. As Gym wrote to Knudsen, “You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested and drastic action couched as ‘solutions.’ You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like ‘achievement networks,’ ‘portfolio management,’ and right-sizing our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.”

In Oconomowoc, meanwhile, the school administration proposed “a profound restructuring of its high school, cutting staff and demanding the remaining educators take on more teaching duties,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The district laid off 15 (20%) of its 75 high school teachers and told the remaining teachers that those teaching academic subjects would loose all planning time. Instead of teaching three 90-minute blocks, they would now teach four 90-minutes blocks. Even though the remaining teachers would be paid $14,000 more, teachers were not pleased.

Mark Miner, a veteran social studies teacher, wrote in the April 29, 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the plan was “recipe for burnout” with “a 33% increase in the teaching load while at the same time eliminating prep time.” Miner called for “true education reform, not mandatory overtime that leaves no time to prepare for class, assess student work or provide the individual attention that all students need.”

The Oconomowoc officials were able to push through their plan without input from teachers because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights in 2011. The students and teachers in Oconomowoc – like the rest of the state – are also affected by the state budget, which included the largest cuts to public education in the history of the state.

In Wisconsin, the first step towards true education reform will be on June 5, when Wisconsin voters have the opportunity to recall Gov. Scott Walker. In Philadelphia, concerned parents and community members are organizing, hopeful they can stem the rush toward privatization. (To stay atop of Philadelphia organizing, check out the community-based Philadelphia Public School Notebook.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Children's Week — Building Community Support for Public Education in Milwaukee

During my 30 years of teaching, people have often asked, “What can I do to help the Milwaukee Public Schools?”

My first response is to encourage them to visit a school. To witness the joys and challenges of teaching today’s students. To begin to understand the complex issues that teachers face every day, and to see first-hand that many stereotypes about our schools and students are just that—stereotypes.

In order to bolster the community’s involvement in MPS, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association has launched the MPS Children’s Campaign. The effort provides a way for individuals to become involved and to build community support to protect and enrich MPS.

The long-term goal is to develop a children’s agenda that ensures that our public schools, especially those in our most economically depressed and racially segregated areas, serve the needs of all children.

I began working in MPS in 1977. At my first elementary school, there were full-time art, music and physical education teachers, along with a librarian and math and reading specialists. Today, librarians and art, music and gym teachers are endangered species. Class sizes have mushroomed.

As jobs have left Milwaukee, poverty has skyrocketed. Almost 84 percent of MPS students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. This is more than twice the state average. The miracle of MPS is that, despite the odds, amazing things happen every day in its classrooms, which is a tribute to educators, students and families.

However, a quality education system has to be based on more than miracles. The children of Milwaukee deserve strong and sustained community support. They deserve the educational resources and enrichment that are the norm in affluent suburbs.

MPS is the largest school district in the state. It is the only educational institution in Milwaukee that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve the needs of all the city’s children.

The future of the metropolitan region is tied to the success of MPS and its students. It’s long past time for all community leaders to help solve the complicated problems confronting MPS. I am tired of exaggerated criticisms from people who have not stepped foot in an MPS school in years.

The MPS Children’s Week, which began on Sunday, is the first initiative of the MPS Children’s Campaign. Milwaukee educators, organized by the union, volunteered at churches on the north and south side to tutor students from 14 MPS high schools for the ACT test that all MPS 11th graders will take on Tuesday, April 24.

Other activities span a range of issues, from literacy, health and arts programs to career and college readiness. On Monday, MPS educators worked with the Milwaukee Public Library and the Next Door Foundation on a “Books in Kids’ Hands” literacy initiative. On Thursday, activities will focus on health and wellness, and the Wisconsin Vision eyeglass company will provide free screening, exams and eyeglasses for students at Vieau School. The list of activities and organizations involved goes on, including food co-ops, bicycle collectives, faith-based organizations, Growing Power, and prominent business groups such as the Milwaukee Water Council and the Greater Milwaukee Committee. (For more information, visit

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association is committed to working with all those who believe in equal opportunity and quality public schools. We ask you to join the MPS Children’s Campaign, whether this week or in the coming months.

It’s easy to be cynical about the prospect for change, but in my more than 30 years of teaching, I have found that commitment, caring and the refusal to give up are far more important values to teach our children.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
This article first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the April 24, 2012 print edition. 

For daily updates and background information on the MTEA-initiated MPS Children's Week go to

Monday, April 16, 2012

Internet Organizing and Popular Outrage Force Corporations to Re-think Funding of ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Goliath-like incubator of conservative legislation at the state level, is being challenged by David-like civil rights activists.

After years of shaping and promoting conservative legislative initiatives, ALEC’s behind-the-scenes activities are being exposed by Color of Change, an on-line civil rights advocacy group, and the Center for Media and Democracy. Both are organizing internet-based campaigns to get major corporations to end their funding of ALEC.

Threatened with on-line petitions, a potential boycott, and hundreds of phone calls, on April 4 Coca-Cola caved after just five hours. In the following days, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Wendy's, McDonald's, Intuit, and Bill and Melinda Gates cut ties as well.

The boycott campaign was grounded in ALEC’s role in developing template legislation for voter ID and so-called “stand your ground” laws.

Trayvon Martin's death and the law that prevented his killer from being initially arrested is an example of how “ALEC's agenda is dangerous for people of color,” according to Color of Change. The NRA and ALEC exported Florida's “stand your ground” law to more than 20 states across the country, Color of Change states.

ALEC, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C, is a conservative lobbying organization that, as its website proclaims, promotes “free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC brings legislators and business people together at conferences and develops template legislation on a variety of conservative issues. According to ALEC’s federal 990 tax forms for 2010, ALEC had a budget of over $7.1 million.  

Funders include conservative foundations and, in more recent years, major corporations. Exxon Mobile, for instance, gave over $1.2 million from 2001-2009. In its early years, ALEC was kept alive by conservative foundations such as the Milwaukee-based Bradley foundation, the Olin Foundation, and Scaife Family Foundation. Since 1997, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation has been a major supporter. 

The group was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, a well-known right-winger who also founded the Heritage Foundation. According to the MediaMatters Action Network, “ALEC has ties to a several right-wing groups, including the Heritage Foundation, The National Rifle Association, and the Family Research Council. Its board of directors includes representatives from PhRMA, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and several other large corporations.”

Voter ID and “stand your ground” legislation are only two of several conservative initiatives that ALEC has successfully peddled to state legislatures throughout the country.

ALEC has played a particularly aggressive role in attacking public education – defunding and dismantling public schools, according to Julie Underwood and Julie Mead, UW-Madison Professors in an article in Phi Delta Kappa. Underwood and Mead explain how the 2,000 state legislators who are members of ALEC work in taskforces and conferences with corporate members to develop model legislation, which the legislators (all of whom but 8 are Republicans) then take back and introduce in their home legislatures.

Underwood and Mead list the topics of educational issues that ALEC is involved in: “teacher certification, teacher evaluation, collective bargaining, curriculum, funding, special education, student assessment…. Common throughout the bills are proposals to decrease local control of schools by democratically elected school boards while increasing access to all facets of education by private entities and corporations.”

A law recently passed in Tennessee aims at undermining the teaching of evolution and is based on ALEC’s model “Environmental Literacy Improvement Act.” The Tennessee law, opposed by a host of scientific and educational organizations, encourages teachers to discuss “scientific controversies” such as “biological evolution” and “global warming.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s playbook shows strong influence from ALEC, of which he is an alumnus.
  •         Within days of being sworn into office, Walker pushed through a tort reform law that was based on ALEC model legislation. Among other things, the law limits liability of corporations even if they knew a product was dangerous.
  •         The deregulation of the telecommunication industry in Wisconsin that was signed into law by Walker in May of 2011 was modeled after ALEC’s model “Regulatory Modernization Act.”
  •          Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill, Act 10, was based in large part on ALEC template legislation known as the “Public Employee Freedom Act.”

ALEC’s influence in Wisconsin reaches beyond Gov. Walker. According to the Progressive magazine 9 of the 12 Republican members of the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee are members of ALEC. The committee’s co-chair, Rep. Robin Vos (R – Burlington), also serves as the ALEC state chair.

The Joint Finance committee was responsible for working with Walker to pass the largest cuts in public education funding in the history of Wisconsin.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wisconsin Is Not For Sale

The unprecedented flow of millions of dollars into the war chest of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker threatens the future of Wisconsin democracy.

Most of Walker’s contributions for the upcoming recall are from out of state — and he is on track to raise more for his campaign than any gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin history. Which raises the question: Will Walker sell out the state to the highest bidder, whether hedge fund managers in New York City, oil magnates in Texas, or right-wing think tanks?

Gov. Walker has raised “more than $12 million, more than any candidate for governor has ever collected for a race in Wisconsin,” according to the March 31 New York Times. What’s more, the report continued, “that only includes money raised through mid-January, when the last campaign financial reports had to be filed with the state.” It doesn’t, for instance, include the more than $200,000 Walker raised in early March at a single event in Palm Beach, Fla.

According to Mike McCabe of the election watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, about 61 percent of money contributed to Walker came from out of state during the reporting period ending in January. That was significantly higher than earlier reporting periods, and there is reason to believe the percentage will again increase when the next reporting period ends.

Among Walker’s supporters, as the New York Times described them:

• “Foster Friess ($100,000), the Wyoming man who has donated heavily to a ‘super PAC’ that has kept Rick Santorum’s presidential hopes afloat.”

• “Trevor Rees-Jones ($100,000), the Dallas president of Chief Oil and Gas and an established donor to Republican causes.”

• “Bob J. Perry ($500,000), a Texas homebuilder who helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads against John Kerry in 2004.”

“Walker also received $250,000 from David Humphreys of Tamko Building Products in Joplin, Mo., another $250,000 from Sarah Atkins of Tamko, and $250,000 from Stanley Herzog of Herzog Contracting, also of Missouri,” according to a January 25 article in the Wisconsin State Journal.

In recent months, Walker has held fundraisers in Palm Beach, Washington and Manhattan. On the day nearly one million signatures were submitted for the Walker recall, the governor was in Manhattan at an event sponsored by Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chief executive of the American International Group. AIG is infamously known as a poster boy for Wall Street greed, with its irresponsible lending practices helping set off the near-financial meltdown in 2008-09.

The fundraiser in Palm Beach had only 10 people in attendance but Walker walked away with over $200,000 — and even more in pledges. (Protesters met Walker as well – something that occurs almost anywhere he goes in the country.)

Walker was invited to Florida by the uber-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, according to Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Bice noted that the Heritage Foundation is “a regular recipient of funds from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which gave the Washington, D.C., outfit $478,000 in 2008 and '09, the last years for which data is available. Walker's campaign chairman, Michael Grebe, is the president of the Bradley Foundation.” (Over the last two decades, the Bradley Foundation has also been the most single important source of financial support for the movement to funnel public dollars into private voucher schools.)

Walker’s fund-raising has been aided by a loophole in the state recall law, which allowed Walker (but not his opponents) to receive donations in excess of the usual $10,000 limit per individual, until the actual date of the recall was set — which basically meant mid-November, when the recall campaign started, until March 30, when Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board set the recall elections dates of May 8 for primaries and June 5 for the election.

The Walker recall was set off by his unprecedented attacks on the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. But it quickly became apparent that democracy and Wisconsin’s Progressive tradition were also at risk.

This March, a well-known conservative commentator was in Milwaukee and explained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel why Walker is receiving conservative support from across the country. Answering the question why Wisconsin is “ground zero for the conservative movement,” commentator Michelle Malkin said, “Well, I think it was pushback to the excesses of progressivism. That’s wrapped up in your state history, and somebody has to pay for that.”

Wisconsin’s Progressive tradition involves a host of reforms that are a bedrock of this country’s social safety net for working people. As historian William Cronon noted in an opinion last year during the Madison protests, “Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a ‘laboratory of democracy.’

Wisconsin pioneered many social reforms, from workers’ compensation to unemployment insurance to public employee bargaining. University of Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security. While a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson helped spark the environmental movement, and is most well known as a founder of the first Earth Day.
The only successful strategy for those who support democracy is match Walker’s money power with people power and win the recall election. It is only then that we will be able to say truthfully, that “Wisconsin is not for sale.”

- - - - -
People in Milwaukee will have an opportunity to hear the Democratic gubernatorial candidates at a Town Hall Meeting on Thursday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Serb Hall, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave.