Thursday, December 20, 2012

Racine school district dishonors MLKing's legacy

By Barbara J. Miner

Sometimes, you wonder: Is this a “real” newspaper or The Onion you’re reading?
Take, for instance, the lead paragraph of an article this week in The Journal Times in Racine:
“Racine Unified has scaled back support for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in part because of the organizing student group’s political activism, district Superintendent Ann Laing said.” 
Oh my. An MLKing event is being criticized because student activists are involved. The civil rights leader must be turning over in his grave with embarrassment at the school district’s stance. 
It turns out that Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) is spearheading the MLKing event, which is on the MLKing holiday. YES is the student arm of the non-profit immigrant and workers’ rights group Voces de la Frontera, and has organized an MLKing Day celebration in Racine for the past three years.
The article in The Journal Times goes on to cite the complaints against YES and Voces.
• YES supports immigrant rights and collective bargaining. (Does the Racine school district realize that King was assassinated while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers and their demand for union recognition?)
• YES supports in-state tuition for undocumented students who graduated from a Wisconsin high school. (Such a measure passed under the Doyle administration, only to be rescinded after Gov. Scott Walker took office.)
Voces organized efforts for students to go door-to-door on election days and encourage people to vote. (Were Racine administrators asleep during history lessons on the Voting Rights Act, one of the seminal struggles of the Civil Rights Movement?)
The controversy started in the fall after right-wing talk radio host Mark Belling in Milwaukee launched a campaign against YES’s involvement in Racine’s MLKing celebration. The Racine school district, among others, immediately started withdrawing support, even though they had backed previous years' celebrations.
MLKing dedicated his life to organizing for political change. It’s a shame that Racine school officials lack both civic courage and an understanding of U.S. history — and feel compelled to listen more to Mark Belling than their own students.

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This blog is cross-posted at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Monday, December 17, 2012

First we mourn, then we organize

Following is a guest commentary by my husband, Bob Peterson. Bob has taught elementary students for 30 years, and is currently the president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. The commentary is from his blog, "Public Education: This is What Democracy Looks Like."

By Bob Peterson

Educators across the nation will enter school with heavy hearts on Monday. Beneath flags at half-mast and between hugs of staff and students, teachers will navigate through difficult questions and raw fears as we remember and honor the victims of the Sandy Hook School tragedy.

First, we mourn.

We mourn for the victims, for their families, for the heroic Sandy Hook staff, and for the entire community of Newtown, Connecticut.

We also mourn for this nation and for the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been affected by this country’s epidemic of mass killings and incessant gun violence.

We also grieve.

As professional educators, we will help our students process their grief and fears. Using social media, teacher unions, school districts and individual teachers have provided resources on how to guide conversations.
Six educators (all women), twelve girls and eight boys (all 1stgraders) were killed in the massacre. Our grieving will never completely end.

We also honor. And the best way to do so is to organize against senseless gun violence.

There are some commentators who say, “No, you can’t take on the gun lobby, you will never win. Talk about keeping children safe, yes. But don’t talk about gun control.”

But, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, “What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the N.R.A.?”

We can hope that our political leaders will, in future weeks, take “meaningful action” against gun violence. We can also hope that this country begins to address the crisis in mental health services.

But the only way to make sure our hopes come true is to organize.

It will take nothing less than a mass movement to ensure that our political leaders fulfill their responsibilities and actually do something rather than lament the power of the pro-gun lobby.

Given the events of Sandy Hook, parents and educators have a particular role to play, including the NEA and AFT leadership. Likewise, community leaders must demand a community-wide response, and religious and business leaders must call upon their colleagues. Together, we all must demand that our elected leaders address the epidemic of gun violence and the crisis in mental health care.

In the coming days, we will mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

But we must also organize to prevent future such tragedies. We have no choice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does City Hall have a clue what's going on at the city's charter schools?

By Barbara J. Miner

It seemed like a simple idea: follow up on a recent media report about the rise in “independent” charter schools in Milwaukee and get specific lists of such charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee, by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and by the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Little did I know that this simple idea would become an ordeal.
Getting lists of this year’s charters from MPS and UWM was relatively easy via their websites. Getting a list from the City of Milwaukee was an exercise in frustration. It took me two days, eight hours on the phone and computer, and dozens of emails before a list was sent to me.
Which made me wonder. Does anybody at City Hall have a clue what’s really going on at the city’s charter schools?
There are 11,938 students in the “independent” charters in Milwaukee, with the schools funded by more than $92 million in taxpayer dollars. Most of the students are at City of Milwaukee and UWM charters, where lines of responsibility and public oversight are, to say the least, murky.
Given the difficulties in getting the most basic of information from the city— a list of its schools — it became impossible to shake the fear that public oversight of these charter school dollars is shrinking almost as fast as the independent charters are growing.
From what I can tell, “independent” has become a euphemism for easing the public out and turning schools over to private entities that operate with minimal public input and transparency. “Privately run” seems a far better description of such charter schools.
But shouldn’t we be worried when we use public tax dollars to shift the education of our children to private interests skilled at circumventing public transparency and oversight?
If, for example, a problem erupts at an MPS school, you know who to call: your local school board member or the MPS central office. But what if there’s a problem at a City of Milwaukee or UWM charter. Who do you call? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

Charter schools are the latest rage in education, particularly charters that operate independent of a school district’s democratically elected school board. A little background is helpful.
Charter schools have their roots among progressive educators in the 1990s who wanted charter contracts with school districts so they could operate outside the bureaucracy and experiment. The goal was to improve academic achievement, strengthen the connections between school and community, and use the lessons learned to improve public schools overall.
Thankfully, some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and entrepreneurs who see a big pot of money in public schools. And it is these forces that are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run charters that are independent of school board supervision.
Like their private-sector counterparts, these charter entrepreneurs tend to chafe at public oversight and control. They also know that market share is the name of the game. Thus there has been a proliferation of national franchises of charters, which use cost-efficient, cookie-cutter programs that they market to financially strapped urban districts.
Not surprisingly, the growth of charters has coincided with the market-place approach to education that has gained supremacy in recent decades. In this education marketplace, students and families are consumers, not deciders, and “choice” is the king of all values. (Whether there is much qualitative difference in Milwaukee’s “choices” is another matter, given that the schools in the city are circumscribed by harsh realities of overwhelming poverty, joblessness and segregation.)
In Milwaukee, three different entities grant charters: the City of Milwaukee, UWM, and MPS. All City of Milwaukee and UWM charters are “independent” charters run by the private organizations that are granted the charter. MPS has two types of charters, both of which answer to the elected school board: “instrumentality” charters that are staffed by district employees and follow many of the guidelines that apply to all MPS schools, and “non-instrumentalities” that are “independent” charters run as private entities. (Is your head spinning with all these details yet?)
Back to my search for a list of the independent charter schools in Milwaukee.

I knew that a list from the City of Milwaukee was especially important. The city’s charters are on the biggest growth spurt, and the city has been in the forefront of signing contracts with charter management franchises based in other cities.
I started my search at the City of Milwaukee webpage — my go-to spot for all sorts of information, from winter parking regulations to the fall leaf collection schedule. At first, it seemed I was in luck. The drop-down box on the right-hand side of the homepage, right under “Contact Elected Officials,” had a link for “Explore Education Options.” I clicked.
Imagine my dismay, however, when the new web page had absolutely nothing on the city’s charter schools. There were links to MPS, to a private school directory, to the voucher program, to colleges and universities, and to information on student aid and other educational resources.
But not a word about City of Milwaukee charter schools. Which inevitably led to the question: Does City Hall know, or even much care, what happens at its schools?
I then tried my next-best Internet trick. I wrote “charter schools” in the web page’s search button. Most of the matches were useless ¬— one took me back to the Explore Education Options site. But the top match (Charter School Application) provided a name and phone number. I wasn’t interested in applying to start a charter school, but I figured that person could help. I called the number.
Once again my hopes were dashed. The person answering the phone was extremely nice — but she was at the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. She wasn’t even a City of Milwaukee employee.
I asked her who would be the best person to contact at City Hall, and she gave me the name and number of a person in the department of administration she worked with. I called the number and left a message explaining I was looking for information on the City of Milwaukee charters.
I have learned not to wait for return phone calls from City Hall, so I did what every frustrated taxpayer does. I contacted the members of the Common Council. After all, the city charter contracts are subject to the Common Council’s approval. As the saying goes, the buck stops there.
I emailed each alderman and asked for a list of the city’s charters, including contact information and basic data on student demographics and enrollment, and for any type of annual report on the charters. I also asked each alderman which charter schools are in their district.
Six of the aldermen replied. None had a list of City of Milwaukee charters, although they suggested whom I could contact. Only one alderman, Jim Bohl, responded to my question about charters in his district. He said he did not have any.
Several forwarded my request to the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau, which provided links to further information, including how to find reports on schools that the city contracted with last year. It turns out the bureau’s data was incomplete, but it was better than nothing.
But my simple goal that started it all was still elusive. I still could not find a list of this year’s City of Milwaukee charter schools
I went to bed Monday night wondering what it would take to get the information.
On Tuesday morning, just as I was ready to start at it again, the woman at the Department of Administration returned my call. (Thank god for hard-working support staff.)
A few emails and about 40 minutes later — and more than a day after I started my quest — she emailed me a list of the City of Milwaukee’s nine charter schools for 2012-13. She didn’t have the number of students enrolled, but at least she had a list.
If anything, however, I was more concerned than when I started.
If the City of Milwaukee wants to be a major player in educating our city’s children, shouldn’t the aldermen have a better sense of the city’s charter schools? If nothing else, a list of the schools?
Who’s really in charge of the City of Milwaukee charter schools? Why did the only phone number for charters on the city’s website lead to the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette?
Stay tuned. I have a feeling that, when it comes to public transparency and input, problems in getting a list of City of Milwaukee charters may be just the tip of the iceberg.
This blog is cross-posted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

By Barbara J. Miner

Dark days are ahead in Wisconsin politics. The Republican legislative majority has made clear it plans to ram through backward legislation in any number of areas, from the environment to education to democratic fundamentals such as the right to vote.
One of the many recent embarrassments (there are so many, it’s difficult to choose): On Tuesday, arch-Republican and Wisconsin Assembly Speaker-elect Robin Vos named Rep. Don Pridemore as head of the urban education committee.
Yes, this is the same Pridemore who, in announcing his candidacy last month for the job of state superintendent of education, mis-spelled the word “superintendent.” The same Pridemore who has said that single parents are a leading cause of child abuse by the mere fact they are single parents. The same Pridemore who has praised Arizona’s anti-immigration, anti-Latino legislation as a model for Wisconsin. The same Pridemore who hails from anything-but-urban Hartford, which has a population of about 15,000 people, about 90% of whom are white.
It’s easy to get discouraged. But it’s also easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses. Remember: Wisconsin survived Joe McCarthy.
It’s also easy to forget that Wisconsin has a number of young, energetic and committed progressive leaders who are getting well-deserved attention nationally.
Thus it was refreshing news when Huffington Post recently named Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Milwaukee as one of “50 young progressive activists who are changing America.” As the article notes:
Born in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these 50 people inherited an America that seems to be holding its breath, trying to decide what kind of country it wants to be. ...
The 50 individuals listed here represent a new generation of activists, artists, thinkers, and politicians who have already become leaders of exciting movements for social justice. They offer hope that the 21st century will witness dramatic changes toward greater equality and democracy.
The Dec. 2 article was written by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College and the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.
For more than a decade, Neumann-Ortiz has been the leading force in Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera, nationally recognized as a grass-roots voice for immigrant and workers’ rights. Most recently, the organization was in the news for its support of workers trying to unionize Palermo’s Pizza.
Both Neumann-Ortiz and Voces have long been vilified by the right wing. Mark Belling recently went after the United Way of Racine County because —horror of horrors!—it gave Voces money to help organize a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration at the Racine public schools. Former Republican state Sen. Cathy Stepp, meanwhile, once called Neumann-Ortiz a terrorist after she tried to talk to Stepp at her home about immigrant rights. 
Georgia Pabst, who does an admirable job covering the Latino community despite the Journal Company’s tendency to ignore low-income communities except when there are issues of crime or dysfunctionality, did a good feature on Neumann-Ortiz on in 2010. Quoting both critics and supporters of Neumann-Ortiz, Pabst’s article was a welcome counterpoint to right-wing radio’s one-sided punditry.
Some people have likened Neumann-Ortiz to Father Groppi, the white priest who led the open housing marches of the 1960s and who is now recognized as one of Milwaukee’s seminal leaders of the 20th Century. Both believed in the power of grass-roots organizing and took up an issue based on its merits, not whether it would be controversial.
Watching the right’s denigration of Neumann-Ortiz and the call to boycott Palermo’s pizza reminds me of a comment by Frank A. Aukofer, a Milwaukee Journal reporter in the 1960s who later wrote a book on Milwaukee’s civil rights movement.
In his book, Aukofer describes how the city’s media and power elite repeatedly decried a 1964 school boycott designed to highlight segregation in the city’s schools. They labeled the boycott illegal, or mere truancy, or a “goofy stunt.” The criticisms, Aukofer writes, were typical of the white majority’s response “to every civil rights protest before and since. Instead of focusing on the issue the boycott was intended to dramatize, the boycott itself became the issue.”
Think of establishment reactions to the boycott of Palermo’s Pizza. Sound familiar?
At a time when arch-conservative Republicans are poised to attack on any number of fronts, we need one, two, many Voces. The Huffington Post article is a welcome acknowledgement that progressive activism matters.
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This article is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Beware charter school initiatives that are a Trojan Horse for dismantling public education

By Barbara J. Miner
Many urban educators have long warned that charter schools, along with vouchers, are being used to dismantle public education.
But here's a warning from the superintendent of one of the wealthiest school districts in the country (and Mitt Romney's home town).
"I’ve never considered myself a conspiracy theorist—until now," writes the superintendent of Bloomfield Hills Schools in Michigan. "This package of bills is the latest in a yearlong barrage of ideologically-driven bills designed to weaken and defund locally-controlled public education."

Check out the letter, posted on the district's website with the title: "An urgent call to action from Superintendent Rob Glass."
Unfortunately, too many Wisconsin politicians (Democrats included) are also promoting semi-private charters — schools that are public in name but run as private institutions.
The charter school movement is rife with contradictions, and there are many types of charter schools. Some remain faithful to the goals and ideals of the movement's founder — using charters to improve public education and to foster innovation and strengthen community control. 

But there is no doubt that privatizers have seized control of the charter school movement.
As Superintendent Glass's letter makes clear, not all reforms are true reforms: a disturbing number are a Trojan Horse for privatization and limiting public control of public education.
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This blog is cross-posted at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.