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.