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.

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