Do you want the Milwaukee Public Schools to survive?
If so, two steps need to be taken.
First, demand a moratorium on new charter schools in Milwaukee.
Second, call for a citywide discussion on basic expectations for all publicly funded schools. Should children have art and music classes? Should teachers be certified in what they teach?
Back to the first question: the survival of the Milwaukee Public Schools. It is not just people within MPS who are concerned. A recent Public Policy Forum report is a wake up call to the broader community. The report underscores that the unregulated expansion of non-MPS charter and voucher schools is threatening the very survival of MPS.
Despite the problems and challenges facing MPS, it remains the only institution in this city with the capacity, commitment and legal responsibility to educate all the city’s children. If it does not survive, there is no way the charter and voucher schools can meet the needs of the district’s 80,000 students, many of them with special educational needs and limited English proficiency.
A “WILD WEST” APPROACH TO EDUCATION
City and state policymakers have adopted a Wild West “everyone for themselves” approach to education. They have promoted charter and voucher schools with little thought of preserving a functioning system of public education for all children.
More than a decade ago, the state allowed the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to charter public schools, with little concern as to how this would affect MPS. Nor have these non-MPS charters led to increased academic achievement in the city. As with MPS, there are some good schools and some schools in drastic need of improvement.
Taken as a whole, the main repercussions of these city and UWM charters have been to undermine the viability of MPS and to erode public oversight of public schools.
In the last 4 years, the student enrollment in city and UWM charter schools rose by nearly 50 percent. The voucher program, under which private schools receive public tax dollars, has grown by nearly 25 percent. The voucher program, in fact, is equal in size to the third largest school district in the state, just smaller than Madison. The combined enrollment in the City of Milwaukee and UWM charter schools rivals in size the state’s 15th largest school district, Fond du Lac. (There are roughly 425 school districts in Wisconsin.)
Public oversight of voucher and non-MPS charter schools is minimal to non-existent.
The possibility that MPS may not survive has garnered national attention. Educational historian and New York University professor Diane Ravitch, in a recent opinion, cautioned that Milwaukee “needs one public education sector, not three competing sectors. The time for dual- and triple-systems should have ended in 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.”
“Milwaukee needs a bold vision,” she concludes. “It needs a reset.”
DEMAND A MORATORIUM ON NEW CHARTERS
The first step in such a reset is to declare a moratorium on new charter schools in Milwaukee. (A moratorium on voucher expansion is also necessary, but less likely given the education agenda of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature.)
We need to ask: Why is City Hall in the business of running schools in the first place? And, as journalist Barbara Miner has asked, “Does anybody at City Hall have a clue what’s really going on at the city’s charter schools?”
And why is the UW Board of Regents in charge of approving UWM charters? What do they know of K-12 education in Milwaukee and the needs of Milwaukee’s children?
“There are 11,938 students in the “independent” charters in Milwaukee, with the schools funded by more than $92 million in taxpayer dollars,” Miner notes. “Most of the students are at City of Milwaukee and UWM charters, where lines of responsibility and public oversight are, to say the least, murky.”
City of Milwaukee and UWM charters go by the euphemism of “independent” charters. But “privately run” is a far better description, as the public is effectively aced out of any meaningful oversight or say in how these charters function.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM OUR SCHOOLS?
The second step in the Milwaukee reset is to demand community-wide discussion of what we expect from our schools. What should be a basic “standard of care” for all our children?
Should all publicly funded schools be required to have certified teachers? A comprehensive curriculum that includes art, music and physical education? Access to bilingual education and foreign language instruction, science labs and libraries? Schools with nurses, guidance counselors and social workers? Due process rights for students, parents and staff?
Universal pre-kindergarten so that children arrive in school ready to learn? Smaller classes and extra attention for children with high needs?
Instead of asking such questions, however, the City of Milwaukee is busy chartering schools to national franchises such as the California-based Rocketship schools — which target Latino students but provide English-only instruction, and replace art and music classes with computer cubicles.
In the 2012 elections, it became clear that there was a concerted effort to disenfranchise voters, especially people of color, poor people, and the elderly. Luckily, that effort was exposed and only spurred voter turnout.
But there is another way to disenfranchise the public — and that is to remove public institutions from true public oversight and accountability. Here in Milwaukee, vouchers and privately run charter schools are examples of such de-facto disenfranchisement.
It’s time to call a halt to policies that undermine democracy and threaten the survival of the Milwaukee Public Schools.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to the Public Policy Forum’s conclusion.
“Efforts to effectively educate 80,000 schoolchildren [in MPS] cannot and should not take place in a fiscal environment that is plagued with such vast uncertainty and challenged by a set of overriding variables that are so beyond the school district’s control. It is incumbent upon local and state leaders to reach agreement – once and for all – on the role MPS will play in the city’s education framework, and to define and secure the resources required to fulfill that role.”