Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fulfill the Promise of Public Education

Remarks by MTEA President Bob Peterson at the Support Public Schools Rally featuring Diane Ravitch • March 18, 2015 

If there’s ever been a time in our nation’s history to defend and improve our public schools, that time is now!

If there’s ever been a place that needs people to defend public education, that place is Milwaukee and Wisconsin. So thank you Diane Ravitch for being with us here today.

We must work together to fulfill the promise of public education and create the schools and communities our children deserve.

There is a war going on against the public sector and the common good. And Milwaukee is ground zero in that war.

Twenty-five years ago proponents of private school vouchers claimed that to improve Milwaukee schools they had to get rid of district bureaucracy, state regulations and teacher unions. Well, for the past quarter of a century they’ve experimented on the children of Milwaukee – no bureaucracy, no state regulations, no unions in their voucher schools.

The result: worse academic achievement than public schools, serve very few children with special needs, no accountability, lots of fly-by-night operations, and a constant push-out of hard to educate students back into the public schools. The oldest and largest voucher program in the nation has failed.

What is Gov Walker’s response to this failure? Expand vouchers statewide.

Milwaukee Common Council was the first city government in the nation to be allowed to charter privately-run schools. The results: little accountability, pathetic oversight. Their schools serve one half as many children with special needs as MPS and 1/3 as many English language learners. Last fall one of their schools offered adults a $200 bribe for each new child they brought to school on third Friday.

What is Walker’s response to this fiasco? Expand privately-run charter schools statewide.

Walker’s plan is simple. Give tax breaks to the rich. Turn down hundreds of millions of federal dollars for high-speed rail, Badger Care, and early childhood education. Destroy unions. Vilify teachers. Accept huge donations from the Koch Brothers. Declare a budget crisis and make further cuts to education and social services.

His agenda is about promoting privatization, undermining democracy, and abandoning public institutions.

If it’s public, Walker and the 1% want it defunded and turned over to private interests. Whether it’s our public university, our public schools, public radio, public TV, public transportation, public health care, or our public natural resources — it’s on Walker’s hit list. Writer Arundhati Roy summed it up, “Privatization of essential infrastructure is essentially undemocratic.”

Four years ago Walker and his supporters made the largest budget cuts in public education in the history of Wisconsin. It meant less individual attention to our students. Less art, music, phy ed and librarians. This year Walker plans to cut $300 million from the UW system, $127 million from the public schools.

We must not allow a Governor who has not had enough education to know whether the earth is six thousand or 4.5 billion years old to destroy our good state.
There are other people waiting in the wings to propose even more draconian legislation. Senator Alberta Darling and Rep. Kooyenga, have proposed a New Orleans’s style Recovery Zone for Milwaukee to further privatize our schools. We have one message for Darling and Keyenga: Keep your hands off MPS!

But folks it’s not only the Republicans who are preventing our children from getting the schools they deserve.

In 2009 we saw a Democratic Governor and Milwaukee Mayor propose a mayoral takeover of the MPS school board. Arne Duncan supported it. The Democrats for Education Reform sent in lobbyists to promote it. 

But people in Milwaukee fought back. The Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover, MPS School Board members and Congresswoman Gwen Moore said no and we won.

We still have a democratically elected school board so vote on April 7.

On the federal level we aren’t winning. Corporate-backed, bipartisan education policy is a disaster for children.

George Bush’s No Child’s Behind Left and President Obama’s Race to the Bottom have promoted school privatization and a massive increase in testing.

This obsession with testing and the idolatry of data are squeezing the joy out of learning. They’re destroying the craft of teaching and turning teachers into test technicians and data collectors. Classrooms are becoming test prep centers, suffocating creativity, collaboration, inquiry, reading of whole books, and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Teachers waste hours inputting and analyzing data that reveals little that they don’t already know about their students. They’re forced to implement scripted curriculum that is antithetical to quality teaching.

Should our children be subjected to endless test prep and narrow curriculum? Or should they have well rounded education that President Obama’s daughters and Joe Biden’s grandchildren receive at the Sidwell Friends School? Or that Arne Duncan received as a child at the Chicago Lab School?

The children of Milwaukee also deserve the best. Our schools should not be data driven, but child driven and data informed. It’s time to demand that students have more time to learn and have teachers more time to teach.

That is what Schools and Communities United outlined in its report Fulfill thePromise: The Schools and Communities our Children Deserve. Fair funding. More teaching. Less testing. Teach the whole child. Smaller class sizes. Expand bilingual education. Community schools. Our schools should be greenhouses of democracy in revitalized neighborhoods.

The Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in our community that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all children.

We should be proud of that, but also recognize that unless we work together to defend and improve our public schools, what was once a great city and state will be gone.

The enemies of public schools are strong and well financed. Our struggle to defend public schools and the entire public sector will only be successful if we are part of a broader social movement for economic and political democracy and racial justice. We need to work with other social movements like Black Lives Matter, Raise Up 15 for living wage, immigrant rights, the environmental movement and prison reform.

It is will be a long fight. But there is no alternative. Together we can and will create the schools and communities our children deserve.

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