Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Protect our public schools. Protect our democracy.

By Barbara J. Miner
There are many ways to undermine democracy. Wisconsin, regrettably, is a prime example.
In 2011, Wisconsin passed one of the country’s strictest voter ID bills, with the most restrictive measures blocked in court.
But undermining the right to vote is not the only way to weaken our democracy. Another way? Remove public institutions from meaningful public oversight.
That, unfortunately, is part of Gov. Scott Walker’s education agenda.
Public schools are essential to our democratic vision, with the right to a public education enshrined in our state constitution. Across the state, voters elect school boards that oversee their local schools. The connection between the schools, the voters, and the community is clear and direct.
But Walker, using seductive rhetoric of “choice” and “options,” wants to increase the number of private voucher schools and privately run charters that operate independent of local school boards.
If you don’t believe that Walker’s agenda is a threat to your local schools, learn from Milwaukee.
Milwaukee has had vouchers since 1990. What started as a small experiment now includes almost 25,000 students. In size, the voucher program is almost as big as the Madison school district.
Vouchers drain both money and students from the public schools. As a result, the Milwaukee Public Schools faces the very real possibility of bankruptcy. Already, class sizes have skyrocketed and music and art teachers are an endangered species.
By design, voucher schools can circumvent public oversight. They are defined as “private” — even if every student receives a publicly funded voucher. Thus they operate under different rules.
Voucher schools do not have to respect constitutional rights and can expel students at will. They can ignore Wisconsin’s open meetings and record laws. Religious voucher schools can teach creationism, or discriminate against gay students. The list goes on.
Walker also advocates more “independent” charter schools.Milwaukee has had such charters since 1999. Our experience? “Independent” is a euphemism for “independent of public control and oversight.” A better description is “privately run.”
The city of Milwaukee, for instance, oversees nine such charters, and public oversight is painfully lacking. There is no information on the city’s website. There is no listing of schools, or meetings, or boards of directors, of even information on who is in charge.
The city of Milwaukee has been wooing national charter franchises. An educational version of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, these franchises develop cookie-cutter, low-cost models. As part of the deal, “management” fees are sent out of Wisconsin to the franchise’s national headquarters.
Privately run charters are a blueprint for corporate takeover of education.
Legislation to expand privately run charters failed last year. But it provides a look at Walker’s thinking. Under the plan, “independent” charters could have been approved by a statewide board, with six of the nine members appointed by the governor. There was no requirement for local oversight.
Wisconsin has more than 200 charter schools overseen by local school boards — only six states have more charters. There is no need for an appointed state board. Unless, of course, you want to privatize our public schools.
The call for more vouchers and privately run charters is an abandonment of public education and of democratic control of a vital institution.
If you care about your public schools, speak up. Now, before it’s too late.
Note: This opinion originally appeared in the Feb. 5 Cap Times in Madison.
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My new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New Press, January 2013) is now on sale. To find your local independent bookstore, go to the Indiebound website, enter your zip code and you will be shown the 5 closest Indie bookstores. The Teaching for Change Bookstore (at Busboys and Poets) in Washington, D.C. also sells an e-edition. Amazon sells both a print or kindle edition.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Honor Lloyd Barbee — by more than naming a building after him

No, the history of African Americans should not be relegated to a single month.
At the same time, Black History Month (February) provides a chance to honor people and events that might otherwise go unrecognized by younger generations.
People such as Lloyd Barbee.
Most associated with the 1976 federal court decision declaring Milwaukee’s public schools unconstitutionally segregated, Barbee took a broad view of human rights. The following account from the June 18, 1969 Milwaukee Journal provides a glimpse of Barbee’s wide-ranging views.
Assemblyman Lloyd Barbee, who represents one of the poorest districts in the state, is attempting this legislative session to meet the needs of his race and the poor in general with perhaps the most radical libertarian legislative proposals anyone has offered. . . .
Barbee’s views transcend the question of race and go to the basic question of man’s nature. The Democratic assemblyman from Milwaukee’s inner core has introduced bills that would:
Permit sexual intercourse among consenting adults.
Repeal the crime of abortion.
Repeal state obscenity statutes.
Permit prisoners to have sexual intercourse with visitors.
Require inquests when requested into deaths caused by law enforcement officers.
Expunge juvenile criminal records if there have been no convictions in three years.
Give a defendant in a criminal action access to records and information.
Grant the right of bail on appeals to the state and United States supreme courts.
Prohibit physical and verbal abuse by law enforcement officers.
Require psychological screening of applications for police jobs.
During his time as a legislator, Barbee also called for reparations to Wisconsin residents whose ancestors were slaves or “persecuted” Native Americans; eliminating “debtor’s prison” arrests; making Malcolm X’s birthday and the day of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination legal holidays; and setting a four-year term for the Milwaukee police chief (who at the time was police chief for life).
Barbee first received widespread public attention in 1961 when he spearheaded a 13-day, round-the-clock sit-in at the state capitol in Madison to promote housing and equal opportunity legislation. Shortly afterwards, he successfully organized so that Nigger Heel Lake, in northern Wisconsin, was renamed Freedom Lake.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on Aug. 17, 1925, Barbee was the youngest of three boys. His mother, Adlena, died when he was six months old. His father, Earnest, instilled in him not only a love of classical music and literature but also a lifelong passion for fighting for justice. He told the young Lloyd: “Be right or get right. And when you are right, go ahead.”
As a young man, Barbee was acutely aware of school segregation. He walked past several all-white schools each day to get to his all- black school. Jim Crow segregation also kept Barbee from taking advantage of the Memphis public library. When he was just twelve years old, he joined the NAACP.
Barbee received a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1955, as part of a young generation of African American trailblazers at white- dominated universities. Degree in hand, he immediately became involved in civil rights issues.
Both a staunch integrationist and a fierce opponent of white supremacy, Barbee explained his views this way in a 1969 interview: “I see myself as a human being, interested in humanity and fulfilling its maximum potentialities. I realize this will never happen as long as whites view themselves as being superior because of their whiteness— therefore I must fight racism.”
Barbee had a well-honed ability to speak his mind, and he was called bombastic, elitist, and outrageous. He often responded by being even more erudite in his vocabulary or more provocative in his positions. He once called for abolishing police forces altogether because the police “are taught violence and actively practice it.” During the desegregation movement, he called a bureaucratically minded school board member “the king of the pussyfooters.”
When then Mayor Henry Maier labeled an open-housing street protest as “Ku Klux Klanism in reverse,” Barbee responded that Maier’s record on civil rights “ranges from a mere whisper to a whining whimper.”
Barbee not only took an expansive view of civil and human rights, he also understood that core issues — in particular school segregation — had to be addressed as metropolitan-wide problems.
In a 1984 interview, he noted that demographic realities would lead to the resegregation of the Milwaukee Public Schools unless one aggressively called for metropolitan-wide desegregation. “Otherwise,” he said, “the arrogant white school districts will confine the Milwaukee Public School System to a segregated island.”
Today, Barbee’s name is mostly mentioned in conjunction with the MPS Montessori school named after him. In that regard, Barbee is in good company. Martin Luther King Jr’s name adorns segregated schools across the country even as urban/suburban segregation is ignored and education is viewed in isolation from broader problems.
A building’s name is nice. But, as Barbee might say, unless it goes further such an accolade “ranges from a mere whisper to a whining whimper.”
Too bad we don’t honor our African American heroes by emulating their militancy and passion for justice.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Do Milwaukee's children deserve art and music classes?

By Barbara J. Miner
Do young children deserve art and music classes?
Or, instead of art and music, should kindergarten and first-graders spend two hours a day in Dilbert-like cubicles, keyboarding answers into computers while uncertified aides monitor the room and maintain order?
Such questions should be part of a much-needed public discussion on the City of Milwaukee’s expectations for its charter schools.
A PBS Learning Matters report on Dec. 29 provided a fascinating glimpse at the privately run Rocketship Education network of charter schools in California that, beginning next year, will be in Milwaukee. The show, which aired Dec. 29, is available online and is worth the nine minutes it takes to watch.
The PBS report looks at both strengths and weaknesses in the Rocketship approach and focuses on the Rocketship Mosaic school in San Jose, Calif. It begins by likening Rocketship’s business plan to Henry Ford and his mass-produced, assembly line Model T that became the “first innovative and affordable car available to the masses.” The show also has scenes of energized students, known as Rocketeers, chanting about their potential, and interviews with supportive parents and enthusiastic young teachers.
But the PBS story raises some tough questions — for instance the lack of art and music at Rocketship Mosaic, that the computer learning labs aren’t working as planned, and that half the teachers have less than two years’ experience.
In November 2011, the Milwaukee Common Council approved Rocketship to open its first city charter school in September 2013, enrolling 480 students the first year and to be known as Rocketship Milwaukee. The Council also gave Rocketship Milwaukee an unprecedented go-ahead to grow to eight schools and 4,000 students — even though Rocketship has yet to demonstrate that even one of its schools here will live up to its marketing promises.
Rocketship, which started in 2006 and runs seven schools in California, has national ambitions to reach 50 cities and one million students. Powerful movers and shakers, including Mayor Tom Barrett, wooed Rocketship to Milwaukee. With a business approach not unlike that of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, national franchises such as Rocketship develop a uniform, cost-efficient product that can be marketed and replicated nationwide, especially to cash-strapped urban districts.
Rocketship is focused on working with low-income students to raise test scores; its background is with Latino students. Attempts to open schools in Oakland, Calif., and East Palo Alto were rejected when critics said the franchise lacked experience educating African American children. A July 29 report in the Washington Post also noted that about six percent of Rocketship’s students are classified as having learning disabilities — “about half the rate found in the surrounding traditional public schools."
Rocketship has limited its efforts to kindergarten to fifth-grade schools, and has not ventured into the more troubled (and more expensive) educational waters of middle and high schools.
One of Rocketship’s biggest selling points has been its “learning labs” —a computer-room where students sit in individual cubicles and the computer substitutes for traditional classroom interaction between students and teacher. The computer labs are promoted as a digital-era innovation of “blended learning” that will spur academic achievement. The Scholastic Administrator magazine describes the learning lab as “the financial and academic key to Rocketship's ambitious mission.” 
But that key may be broken.

“The learning lab saves schools a lot of money,” Merrow notes in his report, “but there's just one problem: They're not really working.”

A Rocketship teacher, for instance, notes that the learning labs don’t provide information that teachers can then use in the classroom. “A problem we saw,” Merrow adds, “is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.”

The problems are such that the school may drop its learning labs, the principal tells PBS.

The learning lab has been key to the Rocketship model because it allows a school of roughly 500 students to hire six fewer teachers and save money to put into other areas, such as a longer day and teacher training.
That saved money, however, is not necessarily used to provide an enriched curriculum.
“One thing the savings are not used for: art and music classes,” Merrow reports.
Merrow also notes that more than 75% of the teachers at Rocketship Mosaic come from Teach for America (TFA), which recruits college graduates, trains them during the summer and then sends them to urban schools. The problem? Studies have repeatedly shown that experienced, quality teachers are one of the best guarantees of academic improvement. Relying on TFA, which only requires a two-year commitment, also means that staff turnover will likely be high. (John Danner, the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Rocketship, is philosophically opposed to unions.)
Interestingly, all the teachers shown in the PBS special were white, and all the students were Latino. PBS did not mention, but it is well known, that Rocketship does not believe in bilingual education for its Spanish-speaking students and has adopted an “English-only” approach. It promises to follow federal and state laws regarding services for “English Language Learners,” but that is a far cry from supporting students in both languages so that they enjoy the academic, personal and economic benefits of being truly bilingual.
The Rocketship model raises a number of questions which merit public discussion about the city’s expectations for its charter schools. Does the public support the view that schools, as part of a deliberate education strategy, should forego art and music classes? Is it good education policy to rely on inexperienced teaches? Is it sound education practice to put five- and six-year-old children in front of a computer for two hours straight during the school day?
Perhaps most important, why is Milwaukee’s Common Council in the business of overseeing schools in the first place?
The questions are particularly important given the proliferation of privately run charter schools approved by the Common Council.

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 all the schools in a district.

Some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and marketplace entrepreneurs who view parents as consumers, not deciders, and who chafe at public control. Such forces are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run, franchise charters that operate outside the supervision of democratically elected school boards.
Leading business people have been a guiding force behind Rocketship’s entry into Milwaukee, in particular Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Michael Grebe of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Sheehy visited Rocketship and spearheaded efforts to raise $3.5 million in additional funding that Rocketship said was necessary.
Rocketship has worthy aspects, for instance its administrative support for teachers. But I’m always nervous when hoped-for education miracles are first tested on poor children in Milwaukee.
If these charter franchise schools are so great, why aren’t the Whitefish Bay or the Lake Country school districts clamoring for Rocketship?
Imagine if Tim Sheehy were to tell his neighbors in Whitefish Bay that he wanted to raise $3.5 million to bring in a California-based outfit to compete with and take money away from the Whitefish Bay schools, that these privately run schools would not provide art and music, that kindergarten children would be put in front of Dilbert-like cubicles for two hours a day, and that the board of directors would be dominated by people who did not live in the community? What do you think the response in Whitefish Bay might be?
If I had to put any money on it, Whitefish Bay parents would echo the thoughts of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. “These are schools for poor children,” she wrote in a blog titled “Rocketship to Nowhere,” where she summarized her impression after watching the Merrow show. “Not many advantaged parents would want their children in this bare-bones Model-T school. It appears that these children are being trained to work on an assembly line. There is no suggestion that they are challenged to think or question or wonder or create.”
The MMAC’s Sheehy is not the only influential businessman promoting Rocketship Milwaukee.
The Bradley Foundation, which is a strong proponent of both voucher schools and privately run charter schools, granted Rocketship Milwaukee $375,000 last year. The ideologically conservative foundation also gave $3 million to the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund, a venture capital initiative that — surprise! — has given money to Rocketship.
Michael Grebe, head of the Bradley Foundation, is on the board of directors of the Charter School Growth Fund. (In Wisconsin, Grebe is better known as the chair of Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.) Sheehy, meanwhile, is chair of the board of directors for Rocketship Milwaukee.
Another prominent local person involved with Rocketship is Deborah McGriff, the staff person at the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund that has invested $1.18 million in Rocketship. (The Fund promotes “entrepreneurial organizations” and is yet another indication of how the private sector believes there is money to be made in charter schools.) McGriff is married to Howard Fuller, who founded and directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, which oversees the City of Milwaukee charter school initiative. Until recently, Fuller personally chaired the city’s charter school process. Last year, the Bradley Foundation gave $50,000 to the Institute to support the approval process for city charters — on top of $875,000 in funding to the Institute in the previous four years.
McGriff and Fuller, meanwhile, are two of the three members of the board of directors of the Quest schools, another privately run charter initiative approved by the City of Milwaukee.
If it all sounds a bit too cozy and ingrown, well perhaps it is.
A few key people are calling the behind-the-scene shots for City of Milwaukee charters, and even many aldermen have little idea what’s going on in these city-approved schools. Several alderpeople have begun asking questions, in particular Robert Bauman, Tony Zielinski, Nik Kovac and Jose Perez. But by and large the council has rubber-stamped the decisions by Fuller’s Institute, providing a fig leaf of public oversight.
It’s enlightening to look at the last big school reform pushed by Fuller, the MMAC, and the Bradley Foundation.
All three have been key forces behind the voucher movement, under which tax dollars are funneled out of public education and into private schools. Using the seductive rhetoric of ‘choice,” vouchers began in 1990 and were supposed to usher in a golden era of educational achievement in Milwaukee.
The voucher movement reflected a virtual wish list of conservative, free-market reforms: no unions, no central bureaucracy, minimal government oversight, the ability to hire and fire teachers at will, and wide latitude to institute just about any innovation desired, from the length of the school day to curricular reform.
But the voucher movement’s rhetoric crashed on the rocks of reality. In 2010, for the first time the voucher schools were required to take the same tests as public schools and the test scores were released publicly. The results? The voucher schools scored about the same in reading as comparable MPS students, and worse in math.
Substitute “charters” for “vouchers” and this troika of the MMAC, Bradley and Fuller is up to the same old same old. There’s little to indicate the results will be significantly different — and everything to indicate that the major consequence may be even more public dollars flowing into privately run schools, with the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) left to pick up the pieces when a charter school fails or expels an unwanted student. (Charter school expulsions are one of many issues that need to be addressed. The city charter high school CEO Leadership Academy, for instance, expelled roughly 16% of its students last year, according to a performance reviewed submitted to the Common Council. The review also notes that the academy’s test results were far below scores for low-income students in MPS. Fuller helped found the school in 2003, and until 2011 the academy was a voucher school; Fuller remains chair of its board of directors.)
MPS, for all its shortcomings, problems, and challenges, remains the only institution in this city with the capability, commitment and legal obligation to serve all children. We abandon it at a peril not just to democracy and public control of public institutions, but at peril to our moral obligation to provide a quality education to all the children in the City of Milwaukee. 
At the very least, we need to ask ourselves: do the children of Milwaukee deserve art and music classes?