Sunday, July 22, 2012

Do children deserve playgrounds? Why is this even controversial:

By Barbara J. Miner

It’s a sad day in Milwaukee when we are forced to debate whether young children deserve playgrounds at their school.

Unfortunately, it’s another example of the deeply “separate and unequal” educational realities in our hypersegregated region. Can you imagine an outpouring of complaints in affluent suburbs such as Whitefish Bay or Brookfield if schools were required to have playgrounds?
At issue is a proposed ordinance on whether any newelementary school approved in Milwaukee should include outdoor play space. The Milwaukee Common Council is expected to take up the matter Tuesday.
The proposal seems like a no-brainer. Given children’s inherent energy levels, the rising obesity epidemic among children, and the link between exercise and academic learning, you’d think that the city could unite around this modest requirement.
But voucher and charter advocates are condemning the measure as an infringement on parent’s rights.
You know, sort of like when one’s rights are abrogated by seat-belt laws, and no-smoking ordinances, and immunization requirements.
A Common Council committee voted unanimously last week to require outdoor play areas in new elementary schools. School Choice Wisconsin — the well-funded, conservative group promoting private school vouchers and semi-private charter schools over traditional public schools — issued a press release condemning the committee vote.
The measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choice in Milwaukee,” the press release complained. “…The goal of this policy is to restrict education reform in Milwaukee.”
Wow. So playgrounds are now a barrier to education reform? That’s kinda crazy.
The issue of playgrounds was forced on the Common Council by a group of grass-roots activists concerned that voucher and charter schools are shortchanging our children.
“Over the past few years, many of us noticed the lack of amenities available for our children to ‘be children’,” a statement by the activists noted.
The activists are particularly concerned about City of Milwaukee charter schools and voucher schools housed in former industrial buildings. Needless to say, the buildings were not constructed with children in mind. They were more often warehouses — putting a sorry spin of reality on the complaint that schools too often warehouse children rather than teach them.
“It is not acceptable for our children to be treated as if they live in the Jim Crow south of the past or a third world country,” the activists noted.
Their statement, sent by email on July 21, was signed by the co-chairs of Women Committed to an Informed Community, the chair of the Christian Community Caucus, the executive director of The Council for the Spanish Speaking, and the newly formed Education Coalition of Milwaukee.
It is irony bordering on tragedy that voucher and charter proponents —who sold their initiatives to the public as a way to improve education for poor children — now want to deny playgrounds to poor children.
The Brown v. Board decision in 1954 struck down “separate andequal” public schools as inherently unconstitutional. Now we have voucher/charter proponents stooping even lower and defending “separate andunequal.”
The Milwaukee Public Schools, despite one’s criticisms of the district, has traditionally included significant space for playgrounds. Nor is MPS building any new schools. Voucher and City of Milwaukee charter schools, meanwhile, are on a growth spurt. And much of that growth is due to decisions made behind closed doors, despite the significant public dollars involved.
Good luck finding out much of anything about the city’s charter schools. Do a search on the City of Milwaukee’s home-page for “charter school” and you get the phone number to call if you want to apply to run a charter school, a notice of a public hearing from 2010, and all sorts of unrelated things likethe “City Charter and Code of Ordinances,” which includes matters such as the city’s boundaries and the duties and authority of city officers.
Almost four decades ago, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall warned about the problems that will confront our nation’s metropolitan areas if we allow hypersegregation between cities and suburbs. In a 5-4 court ruling that limited desegregation to Detroit’s city boundaries, he issued a dissent that was unequivocal, eloquent, and prescient.
“In the short run, “ Marshall wrote, “it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”
The Common Council is set to meet on Tuesday at 9 a.m. If you believe that children deserve playgrounds, call City Hall at 414-286-2221 and ask to speak to your alderperson.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

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