Milwaukee Educators Thwart School Takeover Scheme

Educators, students, parents, and community activists in Milwaukee are fighting for the very survival of their public school system. Photo: MTEA

If the Wisconsin legislature had gotten its way, private charter companies would have taken over at least one more public school in Milwaukee this year—pushing us dangerously near a tipping point to the planned extinction of our school district.

But instead, thanks to the dogged activism of educators, students, parents, and community activists, we have staved off the immediate threat. The takeover commissioner backed away from announcing target schools, then resigned his post. And on October 12 we celebrated the news that our district is out of danger from the takeover law.

We did it by raising a ruckus, by nurturing a grassroots coalition over the long term, and by sticking to the principle of “all for one and one for all.” And we don’t intend to let up.

PLANNED EXTINCTION

Twenty years ago it never occurred to me how bad things could get—that we would be fighting for the very survival of our public school system.

Milwaukee was the first school district to offer vouchers, and one of the first cities where private charter schools took root. Between the two, we’ve lost 44 percent of our public school student population.

As charter schools expanded, our union did not draw a hard line in the sand. It didn’t occur to us in the 1990s and 2000s that we could lose students on this scale. But that’s changed as we’ve watched the systematic privatization of schools not only here, but in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Newark.

Sixteen months ago, as part of the state budget, Republican legislators passed a plan to end public schools in Milwaukee. They empowered the county executive to appoint a takeover commissioner who would choose schools to hand over to charter school companies.

The new law required that at least one school, and up to three, be taken over in the 2016-17 school year. The following year, it could be up to three schools, and every year after that, up to five.

RICH PEOPLE’S PLAN

The commissioner would pick his targets from a Department of Public Instruction list of schools that “failed to meet expectations.” But we don’t accept calling these “failing schools.” We see them as schools that have been under-served and abandoned—schools that need our support.

“It is a tired narrative to say any Milwaukee child is ‘trapped’ in any school,” said Jenni Hofschulte of Parents for Public Schools, one of the co-chairs of our community coalition. “Milwaukee is one of the most ‘choice’-saturated cities in the country. Families choosing a Milwaukee public school have made their choice—and Wisconsin has a constitutional commitment to our public schools and the children in them.”

What would happen to any school taken over? There would be no requirements for certified teachers. There would be no publicly elected board answerable to community and parents.

The commissioner would issue a request for proposals, and different companies could apply to run the school. The new operator would be required to terminate all employees. Then it could decide what salaries and benefits to offer, and whether to hire back those who reapplied.

Staff would no longer be school district employees. Any takeover would last for a minimum of five years.

And what would happen to the district’s budget? The state allocated no new funding for this alleged reform. The takeover plan would burden the district by forcing it to reallocate staff and resources to support a new, parallel district. We projected that over six years Milwaukee could be losing $100 million. The district would be barred from using property taxes to make up the loss—though for the taken-over schools, the county executive could solicit gifts and grants.

The architects of this law live in rich, almost exclusively white communities. They aren’t from Milwaukee, yet they’ve decided they know what’s best for Milwaukee students and families.

AN INJURY TO ALL

Everyone’s first question was, “Is my school on the list?” Our answer was, “Every school is on the list.” If any school was taken over, every educator would feel the effects. We all had to be ready to defend every school as if it was where our own kids went.

Luckily, students, families, and educators weren’t facing this threat alone. We have many partners in Schools and Communities United, a coalition our union has been working for a few years to develop.

“Creating a space for the community to gather, express concerns, and plan for change has been invaluable in this takeover fight,” said union Secretary Ingrid Walker-Henry, a co-chair of the coalition. “The combined knowledge and skills has proven to be effective.”

Our coalition has called on the city council to put a moratorium on chartering schools. So far we’ve won small victories, including more transparency in the chartering process.

The coalition meets every other week, and it’s always a work in progress. We continually ask, who’s not at the table? How can we involve more students and youth?

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“Our focus is singular, but our membership is multi-faceted,” said Marva Herndon of Women Committed to an Informed Community, one of the coalition’s key partner groups. “There are parents, grandparents, retirees, students, teachers, real estate brokers, transportation workers, researchers, and computer programmers, to name a few.”

THE FIGHT BEGINS

We started showing up at school board meetings and all the other public events where the county executive or the takeover commissioner appeared.

Community members and educators made calls to Senator Alberta Darling, one of the law’s architects, telling her, “Hands off of our public schools!” She instructed her staff to tell people to stop calling her. After we made that public on social media, the calls doubled.

Sixty people showed up to the commissioner’s first public meeting. The Overpass Light Brigade came, and projected the message “No Takeover” in glowing lights. The commissioner gave a PowerPoint presentation—but he didn’t even understand the legislation, and didn’t handle the crowd’s questions well.

Another time we went to the rich school district where the takeover commissioner is superintendent, and held a press conference while he was trying to conduct a school board meeting. Our message to the people there was, “You have democratic control of your schools, and that’s all we want for ours.”

We bought rush-hour radio time on the most-listened-to stations on each side of town. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, with most Spanish speakers living on the South Side and most African Americans living on the North Side. So one ad was in English, one in Spanish. Both featured students and parents educating the public about what was coming their way.

RAMPING UP

And at the school level, we held walk-ins—where students, parents, and educators meet before school to rally and then walk in together—calling for full and fair funding, local control, and the expansion of community schools. The first walk-in was in June 2015, the same month the legislation was announced. About 30 schools participated, and 10 more followed suit the next week.

That September, 104 schools held walk-ins. In February, 114 did. Each time we pushed to reach more schools. In the latest walk-in October 6, 117 schools participated.

In our union “war room” we mapped out all 132 school sites in the district, tracking which were going strong and which still needed support. The schools that hadn’t yet joined walk-ins became our highest-priority sites, where we knew we needed to send organizers to help members get a building team going.

On April 22, the commissioner was supposed to begin a qualitative analysis of the 53 schools on the state’s list. On May 10 they would announce which eight schools would be on the short list for takeover.

Our attitude was, “Tell us.” We were ready to zero in and defend those schools—to educate local parents, neighbors, and students, to let them know, “We will not let this happen in any neighborhood.”

We even held civil disobedience trainings at our union, and began to get ourselves mentally and physically prepared for direct action.

NOT LETTING UP

They never did announce the eight targeted schools. In June, the takeover commissioner resigned—and in October, the state announced that our district no longer qualified for the takeover plan. Despite egregious disinvestment, our students had made notable achievement gains.

That doesn’t mean the fight is over. A couple of Republican legislators have made veiled threats of additional so-called “reforms.” The Milwaukee community is continuing to demand local control, full and fair funding for our public schools, and expansion of the community schools model.

We’ve also managed to thwart another part of the legislation, which allows for the sale of empty school buildings to the highest bidder. These buildings are vacant on purpose, because of voucher proliferation and expansion. So far we’ve blocked the attempt to sell the first empty school building to RightStep, a military boot-camp private school that’s under FBI investigation for subjecting kids to abuse.

And we’re also fighting to stop a voucher school from being put in on the North Side in a Half Price Books store. The same company has a current site in an old exercise chain, where kids are trying to learn in a classroom that’s really a racquetball court with a floor lamp.

So our fight goes on. As another coalition partner, Jamaal Smith of Wisconsin Jobs Now, put it: “We will not stand by and allow our schools and communities to become additional assets in wealth-building for corporations and elitists. Not on our watch!”

Amy Mizialko is a special education teacher and the vice president of Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. Learn more about Schools and Communities United here.

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A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 452, November 2016. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.