Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Walker Deserves an “F” for his attack on Milwaukee Public Schools

 Just days before children started the new school year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker leveled charges against the Milwaukee Public Schools and exposed a level of ignorance about the conditions of African Americans that surprised even his most ardent critics.

Chuck Todd of Meet the Press interviewed Walker for the August 30 show, and in a segment available only in the on-line version, he asked Walker:
“There is a higher incarceration rate for African American men in Wisconsin than anywhere in the country, … a study that said African American children in Wisconsin ranked 50th in the nation when it comes to opportunity, and the African American unemployment is double the national average. Why is it?”
Walker’s response: 
“It’s the sad truth. It’s been true for decades. Part of it, I think, is some of the poor policies in the city of Milwaukee. We pushed back on it. You look at the Milwaukee Public School system has a real challenge and one of the big disparities… has been there. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been such an advocate long before I was governor for school choice….”

A few moments later Chuck Todd interrupted Walker, “Like this is on Milwaukee – there’s not much more you could have done.”
“Right now… we’ve done all sorts of things. We put out hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild the economy out there but again you have to have leaders who are willing to use the tools we have given them…. As president I am going to try empower cities, towns, and villages of all different sizes to have more freedom and more liberties to do things without the restrictions from Washington and without some of the restrictions you see one of the biggest areas of big government and union control as commonplace has been Milwaukee.”
As his sole example, Walked talked about the case of Megan Sampson, a high-school English teacher who was laid off from Milwaukee Public Schools in 2010. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, “Walker has used her as the face of Act 10, his signature bill that curtailed collective bargaining for most public employee unions. Since Walker referenced her in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011, Sampson has asked Walker to stop using her story and renewed her calls this year when Walker began using it in presidential campaign appearances.”

What’s wrong with Walker’s statements?

Walker asserts that Milwaukee Public Schools is the main reason for Wisconsin’s high incarceration rate of black males, the high black unemployment rate, and the fact that our state is worst in the country in protecting the well-being of African American children, based on 12 key indicators. Really?

Keep in mind that Wisconsin’s incarceration rate of African American males is 12.8% – the highest of any state in the nation, twice the national average – in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As Schools and Communities United pointed out in its document Fulfill the Promise: The Schools and Communities Our Children Deserve, these statistics are only part of what it called the New Jim Crow. Metropolitan Milwaukee is the most residentially segregated metropolitan area in the nation between blacks and white and between rich and poor. It has second highest black poverty rate (39.2%, 4.9x great than white) among the 40 large benchmark metropolitan areas. It has the lowest percentage of Hispanic-owned businesses among the top 36 metropolitan areas. And just this week the New York Times reported that Milwaukee has had the greatest percentage increase in homicides among all cities in the nation.

Walker made no reference to these daunting problems, nor to any serious plans to address these issues of increasing inequality and racial injustice.

Walker, has offered two "solutions” to these problems. 1) Dismantle the public schools and provide taxpayer dollars to private, unaccountable schools. 2) Strip the right to collectively bargain on a range of issues from most public sector unions and local democratically elected governmental bodies.

For a quarter of a century vouchers 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. Milwaukee has had the largest city-based private school voucher program. If it is as great as Walker implies why hasn’t it improved school outcomes for children or solved these larger social problems? One thing it has done, is transfer more than $1.2 billion tax payer dollars to private schools.

Moreover, Walker’s scapegoating of educators, public schools, teacher unions and local school boards distracts people from the serious conversations and actions needed to address these complex problems.

Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all students. Like other public institutions it reflects our nation’s historic problems of institutional racism, and class and gender bias. And like most large school systems it is dealing with many problems not of its own making: homelessness, children and families lacking health care, poverty, stable housing and family sustaining jobs. 

What’s refreshing about MPS is that the school board, administration, the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and most of its dedicated staff are committed to addressing and overcoming these school-related problems and being part of community-wide efforts to help solve the larger social problems that affect us all. The recent initiative between MPS, the MTEA, United Way and community groups like MICAH and Schools and Communities United  to build the community school model at four MPS schools is one such example.

The fundamental question for presidential wannabes like Governor Walker, is whether they will join with the broader community to improve and fully fund our public schools, or continue down the failed path of abandoning the public schools while spending hundreds of millions of dollars of tax payers money on private, unaccountable entities.

Until we see that change, Governor Walker continue to receive an “F” in my grade book.

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