Sunday, July 12, 2015

Walker Shows His Real Politics: Destroy the commons starting with public schools

Governor Scott Walker signed a biennial state budget Sunday afternoon that accelerates his quest to destroy the public sector in Wisconsin. Within 24 hours, Walker will formally announce his candidacy for president to take his right-wing agenda nationwide.

The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools. Among its measures are an expansion of a voucher program that provides taxpayer funding of private schools and cuts of $250 million to the state’s nationally renowned public university system.

Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and some people had hoped that he might ameliorate some of the more draconian measures of his budget, which was approved by the Republican controlled legislature last week. But Walker by and large let the 1,500-page budget intact, using his line-by-line veto powers to make minor tweaks.

There is one common theme to Walker’s budget: underfunding public institutions, expanding the privatization of government functions, restricting environmental protections, and decimating workers’ rights. Among its many provisions:
• Mandatory drug testing for those seeking unemployment insurance and public assistance services;
• A repeal of “prevailing wage law” requirements for local government projects, and elimination of a state mandate that factory and retail workers get at least one day off per week.
• Removing the term ”‘living wage” from state statues, referring only to a minimum wage, which in Wisconsin is $7.25 per hour.
• Decreases subsidies for recycling,
• Eliminates dozens of scientists’ position at the Department of Natural Resources, opens up thousands of acres in state forests to commercial timber cutting, restricts local zoning along lake shorelines and raises user fees at state parks.

Walker’s most damaging and telling attack on the public sector involves education.

The University of Wisconsin took a massive $250 million budget cut. In addition, tenure is no longer protected by state law but instead will be determined by the University’s Board of Regents, most of whom are gubernatorial appointees.

K-12 public schools were particularly decimated. Shortly before the budget’s signing, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers publicly requested that Walker veto more than 20 education measures that would undermine the state’s public schools. Walker refused.

Instead, the budget continues Walker’s agenda of undermining public education.

A majority of public school districts in Wisconsin will receive less funding this year, and no school district’s state funding will keep up to inflation. At the same time, the budget expands taxpayer support of private voucher schools, which are overwhelmingly religious schools and which are subject to minimal public oversight. (For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s law prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital or pregnancy status. Nor are they subject to the state’s open meetings and records requirements.)

The budget also creates a new and complicated  “special needs voucher” law that was opposed by all special education advocacy groups because of its detrimental effect on special education protections.

The budget also increases the number of authorizers of privately run charter schools that are not subject to the oversight of publicly elected local school boards.

In previous years, all publicly funded schools in Wisconsin — traditional public schools, voucher schools, charter schools — were required to take the same standardized tests, in order to have some semblance of comparing student achievement. The budget eliminates that requirement.

In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a “takeover” plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a “commissioner” who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up five every year thereafter.

Perhaps most indicative of Walker’s perspective is the budget’s elimination of the Chapter 220 urban-metropolitan schools desegregation program. At a time when racism and racial tensions have reached alarming levels across the United States, Walker has eliminated the only program in the state designed to counter segregation in the public schools and improve opportunities for African-Americans.

Walker signed the budget in Waukesha County, an overwhelmingly white county that is among one of the wealthiest and most conservative in the entire United States.

On Monday, Walker will return to Waukesha and officially launch his bid for President. It is an apt indication of which side he will protect in what is an increasingly divided and unequal country.

photo credit: Barbara J. Miner

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Walker’s Budget Undermines Public Education, with Bull’s-eye on Milwaukee

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to do two things in the next few days: Formally announce his candidacy for President and sign Wisconsin’s biennial budget.

The first may receive national attention, but it is the second that will disastrously affect Wisconsin — and that should receive national play.

Buried within the budget are 135 non-budget policy items — a toxic cocktail of attacks on public education, democracy, environmental protections and labor rights.

For Wisconsin’s schools, the budget is a blueprint for abandoning public education. In Milwaukee, in addition to insufficient funding, the budget includes a “takeover” plan that increases privatization and decreases democratic control of the city’s public schools.

The budget was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate a few minutes before midnight Tuesday, with all Democrats and one Republican voting “no”. The Assembly is expected to pass the budget Wednesday and send it to Walker by the end of the week.

The attack on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is in the context of a frontal assault on public education across the state. The budget cuts $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, holds overall K-12 funding flat in the first year with modest increases in the second (which, given inflation, means cuts). And while programs promoting privately-run charters are expanded, the budget eliminates Chapter 220 — a metropolitan-wide program designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color.

The budget is also expanding the statewide voucher program, under which tax dollars are funneled  into private, overwhelmingly religious schools. (The program is modeled after Milwaukee’s private school voucher program which began in 1990 and which now includes 112 schools and 25,000 students.)

The “takeover” plan for Milwaukee, where nearly two-thirds of the state’s African-American population live, was proposed by two white suburban legislators, Sen. Alberta Darling (R) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R). Because the plan was inserted into the budget rather than proposed in a separate bill, there was never a public hearing.

The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a “commissioner” who will have parallel power with the elected school board overseeing MPS. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up five every year thereafter.

The take-over plan is replete with problems that are indicative of Governor Walker’s approach to public policy and the public sector. These problems include:

1) Expands failed policies. The notion of  improving public schools by turning them over to private charter or voucher operators has been tried before — and failed.
For 25 years, voucher schools in Milwaukee have been a conservative’s dream – no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations – and what has been the result? Vouchers schools on the whole perform worse than the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the last quarter century, vouchers schools have drained over a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money away from Milwaukee students who depend on the public schools. This  under-resourcing of public schools means larger class sizes, less individual attention and greatly reduced access to art, music libraries and physical education compared with suburban counter parts.

2) Undermines democracy. Elected school boards and lack of choices are not the problem with our schools. Milwaukee arguably has more publicly funded school options than any urban system in the country, from citywide and neighborhood-based public schools, to MPS charter schools, to city-controlled charter schools, to charters run by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to private voucher schools, to open enrollment that includes suburban districts. The rhetoric around governance is a smokescreen to get rid of democratically elected school boards and publicly controlled schools. Yes, democracy can be messy, but the alternative is worse. If we decide to abandon every democratic institution that is not up to our hopes and dreams, why not get rid of the U.S. Congress? Or the Wisconsin Legislature?

3) Exacerbates inequality. Data show that privately run charter and voucher schools serve significantly fewer students with special needs, English language learners and more difficult to educate students. Students are counseled out and pushed back into public schools. The “takeover” plan will only increase this problem.

4) Continues Milwaukee’s plantation mentality. Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. It should give pause when two white suburban legislators propose having a white county executive appoint a “commissioner” who can  pluck schools away from the democratically elected school board of an overwhelmingly nonwhite district.

No one denies that the Milwaukee Public Schools need to do a better job. Yet the state budget expands a disturbing history of abandonment, which will only makes matter worse.  

Despite its problems, the Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all our students. Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and of our future.

When we abandon our public schools, we not only abandon democracy, we abandon our children’s future.

Gov. Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and can literally change the budget line by line. How he uses that veto pen will foretell his national plans as he enters the Republican presidential primary.

In Wisconsin, where we have four years of experience with Walker, we expect him to continue his policies of abandoning public institutions, hurting the poor, and undermining the middle class. Hopefully, national observers will see through Walker’s rhetoric and analyze the realities of his state budget.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Schools and Communities United Stands in Solidarity with Milwaukee Transit Workers

The following is the speech given by Bob Peterson on July 2, 2015 on behalf of Schools and Communities United at a rally in support of the Milwaukee Transit Workers (ATU) in their struggle for respect and a fair contract.

Hello Milwaukee Transit Workers!

The Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and Schools andCommunities United stand in solidarity with you.

Schools and Communities United is a coalition of over 20 community organizations working to improve and defend public schools.

But quality public schools will only happen in healthy neighborhoods. So we fight for both the schools and the communities that our children deserve.

And our children and their families deserve a community with a strong public transit system, a system that treats its workers with respect and dignity and provides adequate compensation.

If it’s public, Gov. Walker and County Executive Abele want it defunded and turned over to private interests. Whether it’s our public university, our public schools, public radio, public TV, public health care, public natural resources, or public transportation — it’s on Walker’s hit list. And all too often it’s on Abele’s hit list as well.

Chris Abele previously collaborated with Walker and Republican legislators to eviscerate the power of the County Board.

Now Abele is collaborating with two suburban legislators -- Senator Darling and Representative Kooyenga to attack the Milwaukee Public Schools. They plan to have Abele appoint a commissioner who would have equal power of the elected school board --  power to take over dozens of  Milwaukee public schools and turn them over to private operators.

These attacks – on Milwaukee Transit Workers and on MPS have two things in common.

First they are attacks on two essential public services like schools and transit that serve ALL people.

Second they are taking place in the most hyper segregated metropolitan area in the nation where white power brokers think they can ride rough shod over communities of color – whether it’s white suburban legislators putting a white County Executive in charge of a commissioner to take over public schools that serve mainly students of color. or whether it’s a white County Executive who ignores the fact that the vast majority of transit workers in this city are African American. I call that racism. 

Schools and Communities United calls on the people of Milwaukee to stand with the Milwaukee transit workers and demand that the all public services be fully funded and kept public!