Tuesday, April 28, 2015

School vouchers in Milwaukee, religious freedom and discrimination

Following is the text of an opinion printed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossrowards on Sunday April 19, 2015
By Barbara J. Miner
As the recent Indiana controversy has made clear, anti-gay bigotry is no longer publicly acceptable even when cloaked with rhetoric of religious freedom.
It's a lesson that, sooner or later, Wisconsin will have to confront. But not because the state has a law similar to Indiana's. Unfortunately, Wisconsin permits an even more disturbing practice. It not only allows respect for religious freedom to be used as a cover for discrimination, but also forces the taxpayer to pay for that discrimination.
Wisconsin's taxpayer-funded bigotry, which includes but goes beyond homophobia, has been cleverly disguised as "school choice." It's complicated, so a bit of history is necessary.
In 1990, the Wisconsin legislature established a voucher program in Milwaukee under which public dollars paid the tuition at private schools. The program was billed as an experiment to improve academic achievement and was limited to a handful of schools. In order to be considered truly "private," schools could have no more than 49% of students receiving a voucher. Religious schools were not allowed.
Over time, conservatives eliminated such restrictions as part of their vision of replacing public education with universal vouchers. Today, more than 26,000 Milwaukee students receive vouchers and 112 schools take part; it is the country's largest and oldest urban voucher program. Test scores are no better than in public schools, so "school choice" has become the defining rationale.
Significantly, limits have been lifted on the percentage of voucher students in a school. As a result, every single student in a Milwaukee voucher school can receive a publicly funded voucher, yet the school is still defined as "private." Last year, most of the schools enrolled predominantly voucher students; 27 schools were 100% voucher students.
With the growth of charter schools, the voucher program almost exclusively benefits religious schools, and some 89% of voucher students in the Milwaukee program attend a religious school. Wisconsin also has a two-year-old statewide voucher program that only includes religious schools, and a four-year-old program in Racine where all but one school is religious-based.
Religion is a highly personal matter, and this country's long-standing defense of religious liberty is a hallmark of our democracy. But the voucher program has distorted this all-important concept of religious freedom.
The problem is most clear when one looks at Wisconsin law that prohibits discrimination against students in public schools — a law that voucher schools can ignore.
Wisconsin has a long history of protecting students' rights, in line with the 1848 state constitution that called for free public schools for children of all races and religious beliefs. Over time, rights have expanded and Wisconsin now prohibits discrimination in a range of areas, including disabilities, pregnancy, marital status, parental status, sex and sexual orientation.
In 1998, when religious schools were allowed to take part in Milwaukee's voucher program, a controversy erupted. As part of the application to become a voucher school, the state Department of Public Instruction included a letter outlining students' rights that were to be respected. The rights included not only nondiscrimination measures, but also constitutional protections of due process, equal protection and freedom of speech.
The religious schools vehemently disagreed with the DPI. They argued that as private institutions, they were exempt from such mandates.
The state Legislature forced DPI to agree that voucher schools merely had to sign a letter acknowledging that they had received a letter outlining the students' rights. The letter specifically noted that such an acknowledgement was not an admission that the students' rights applied to the voucher schools.
Unfortunately, the tensions involving religious liberty, voucher schools and public policy go beyond respect for students' rights.
Many voucher schools adhere to religious teachings that homosexuality is wrong, sex outside of marriage is a sin and artificial birth control is contrary to the law of God. As religious voucher schools often point out, they do not separate their beliefs from their curriculum. Children are taught such views.
I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school and came of age at a time when the church was focused more on social justice than on sex and sexuality. I understand the positive role the church can play. But I also understand that the Catholic Church is anything but a democracy.
As a woman and a citizen, it's upsetting that my tax dollars are being used to promote discriminatory beliefs that violate not only my personal beliefs, but are also at odds with public policy.
Nor are we talking insignificant amounts of money. Since vouchers began in Wisconsin, more than $1.8 billion in public dollars has been given to private voucher schools. This year alone, the three voucher programs in Wisconsin will receive $209 million in taxpayer funding.
Conservatives have used the rhetoric of "choice" to mask the legislatively sanctioned discrimination within the voucher program. They have been equally skillful in corralling debate into whether voucher schools should take the same tests as public schools — an important but ultimately narrow discussion.
The fundamental question is why schools that are completely dependent on public tax dollars get to define themselves as private and play by vastly different rules than public schools.
History moves unevenly. For a range of reasons, these contradictions have not yet come to the fore in the debate on school vouchers in Wisconsin. But they will.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The long history of police brutality in Milwaukee: Clifford McKissick, Daniel Bell, Ernest Lacy, Frank Jude Jr — and now Dontre Hamilton.

Police Brutality Moves Center Stage
Excerpted from the book by Barbara J. Miner, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York: New Press, 2013.) Chapter 11.

On Thursday, July 9, 1981, Ernest Lacy was helping his cousin paint an apartment near Twenty- fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue, on the western edge of downtown. Just before eleven o’clock on that warm summer evening, the twenty-two-year-old Lacy took a break.
Lacy, an African American, walked to a nearby Open Pantry Food Mart for a snack. Near the store, he was stopped by three members of Milwaukee’s all- white elite Tactical Squad. The squad was looking for a rape suspect.
Certain details will never be known. But four eyewitnesses— three white students from nearby Marquette University and a black church elder— later testified at the inquest that they saw Lacy facedown on the ground, his feet near the curb and his head almost in the lane for oncoming traffic. He was handcuffed with his wrists behind his back, his arms jerked high into the air. An officer was kneeling on him. The only disagreement among the eyewitnesses was where the officer had put his knee— the neck, the base of the neck, perhaps the upper back— and whether Lacy’s arms were at a right angle to the street or “nearly” a right angle.
Lacy was thrown into a police wagon. The police drove a few blocks to arrest another man, Tyrone Brown, on old parking warrants. What happened during that ride is unclear. But as Brown got into the van, he stepped over Lacy, who was still handcuffed and on the van floor. It became apparent that Lacy was not breathing, and an officer administered smelling salts. There were no other attempts at resuscitation. By the time paramedics arrived, Lacy’s heart had stopped. Lacy was taken to a nearby hospital, where just before midnight he was pronounced dead on arrival. His body was badly bruised. In the meantime, another man had been arrested for the rape.  
Lacy was thin and slightly built. He had a history of emotional problems. His family said he was easily intimidated, with a particular fear of police and being in enclosed places. This led to the headline in the Milwau­kee Sentinel’s first major story on the killing: “Fright May Have Caused Man’s Death After His Arrest.” Friends doubted police accounts that Lacy aggressively fought back when arrested. Jurors at a subsequent inquest, after a month of testimony from one hundred people, unanimously found that Lacy died due to an interruption of oxygen to his brain because of the pressure applied to his chest and neck.  
For almost two years, sparked by Lacy’s death, race relations in Milwaukee were dominated by the long-standing issue of police brutality. Education, jobs, and housing  were still important concerns, but they took a backseat to what was so starkly a matter of life and death.  
As was common throughout urban America, there had long been ten­sions between the police and Milwaukee’s black community. The tensions  were often the flash point for anger over broader issues of entrenched, institutional racism. Milwaukee was slow to do anything about police-community relations, which only bolstered the perspective that the police’s function in the black community was primarily one of control. By the early 1980s, despite a 1975 court order calling for more blacks to be hired, the force was still overwhelmingly white. Although 25 percent of the city’s population was black, there  were only 129 black police officers on a force of 2,000. None was above the rank of sergeant. 

Harold Breier, appointed as police chief for life, had been running the department almost two decades. He had cemented a reputation as a no- nonsense, law-and-order cop with a disdain for black people. A 1967 report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that “in [Milwaukee’s] inner core, no man is hated more than police chief ‘two- gun’ Breier,” the name often used for the police chief in the black media. Critics in the white community dubbed him “Milwaukee’s Fuhrer.” Supporters credited him with keeping crime low. Mayor Henry Maier, known for doing little to address concerns in the black community beyond establishing commissions and issuing reports, refused to publicly challenge the seventy-year-old Breier.  
It didn’t ease the community’s anger when, about a week after Lacy’s killing, a jury exonerated the police in the death of a young black man shot during the 1967 riots. A policeman had shot eighteen-year-old Clifford McKissick while he was running away from the scene of a firebombing. The family had filed a civil suit, which took fourteen years to work its way through the courts.  
A few months later, in December 1981, the Lacy case again overlapped with past allegations of police brutality. This time the black community was vindicated. A federal civil jury awarded $1.8 million to the estate of Daniel Bell, a twenty-two-year-old black man killed in 1958 after being stopped for driving a car with a broken taillight. One of the officers, Louis Krause, admitted more than two decades later that fellow officer Thomas Grady shot Bell in the back, the gun’s muzzle only six inches away. Officer Grady then drew a knife, put it in Daniel Bell’s hand, and pressed Bell’s dead hand around the knife. The burgeoning civil rights community had launched protests against Bell’s killing at the time. But in 1958 it did not yet have the strength to successfully challenge the police version of events. An all-white inquest found that Officer Grady “had justifiably shot and killed” Bell in self-defense.  
Organizing around Lacy rekindled the grassroots fervor that had been a hallmark of the 1960s. Some of those involved personally remembered not only the Bell and McKissick killings but also the Tactical Squad’s attempts to intimidate open housing activists. A Coalition for Justice for Er­nest Lacy was formed, at its height including more than 125 groups not only from the black and white communities but also from the city’s growing Latino population. The coalition was led by Howard Fuller and Mi­chael McGee, two men who, in their own ways and with widely diverging tactics, would go on to become recognized leaders in the black community.  
Lacy’s death lit a spark. “There comes a point where you don’t take any more,” the president of the Milwaukee NAACP explained to the Chicago Tribune. “The Lacy case was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He is the 23rd victim in the last 10 years who has lost his life at the hands of our police.”
Thousands of people marched throughout the summer, demanding justice. “Fire Breier,” they would chant, referring to the police chief. Breier, in turn, would show up at the demonstrations, all but taunting the crowd.  
Jurors at the inquest that fall recommended that three of the police officers be charged with reckless homicide, the first time an inquest into the death of a black recommended criminal sanctions against the police. Charges were eventually dropped, with the district attorney citing difficulties in getting a conviction. The Coalition for Justice for Ernest Lacy continued organizing, however, and forced the Fire and Police Commission to take disciplinary action. One officer was fired and four others suspended. More satisfying, the Lacy family received a $500,000 settlement the day before its civil suit was to go to trial in federal court.  
The most lasting effect involved changes in state law. One bill, dubbed the “Lacy Bill,” made it a crime to abuse or neglect a suspect in police custody. The other bill, a 1984 measure known as the “Breier Bill,” ended the life term for Milwaukee police chiefs and transferred authority over the police to the city’s Police and Fire Commission, the mayor, and the Common Council. Breier retired shortly afterward, citing age and declining health. The day he announced his retirement, a reporter asked Breier if he would have done anything differently. “I wouldn’t change a damn thing,” Breier replied. “I say to hell with my detractors.”
The Lacy case earned a place of honor in Milwaukee history as the most- sustained, best-organized community campaign ever against police misconduct. But it was not the last example of outrage.  
A decade after Lacy’s killing, in 1991, Milwaukee suffered through its most heart-wrenching murders ever. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered seventeen men and boys, with Dahmer’s gruesome crimes including torture, dismemberment, necrophilia, and cannibalism. A number of the victims were young African Americans and Asians. Concerns  were soon raised that police racism and homophobia helped Dahmer remain beyond scrutiny as he killed so many for so long. By the time he was caught, Dahmer was killing one person a week.  One incident was particularly disturbing. Two months before Dahmer was arrested, an African American woman called 911 and reported a naked Asian boy bleeding and staggering on the street. Police arrived to find Dahmer running after the boy. Dahmer, a seemingly well-mannered white man, convinced the police the boy was a friend who had had too much to drink. The officer reported the resolution of the incident to the 911 dispatcher, saying that “an intoxicated Asian, naked male, was returned to his sober boyfriend.” That report is followed by laughter.
Throughout Milwaukee, people of all ages, races, and sexual orienta­tions  were deeply disturbed when tapes of the dispatch reports  were made public. “If that boy had been white, he’d be alive today,” community advo­cate Reverend LeHavre Buck said, reflecting a common view.
In 1994, an African American inmate at a state prison attacked and killed Dahmer and white inmate Jesse Anderson. Anderson had gained notoriety for blaming two black youths for viciously stabbing his wife to death in the parking lot of a mall frequented by blacks. Police later detailed how Anderson had meticulously planned the attack, thinking his story of a robbery- by- black- youth- gone- wrong would not be seriously questioned.  

 “The distance between civilization and barbarity, and the time needed to pass from one state to the other, is depressingly short. Police officers in Milwaukee proved this the morning of October 24, 2004.”  
So begins a federal appeals court decision involving the police beating of Frank Jude Jr., who describes himself as biracial. The incident—almost half a century after Bell, thirty- six years after McKissick, twenty-three years after Lacy, and thirteen years after Dahmer’s arrest—was noteworthy for its raw racism, prolonged brutality, and widespread police involvement.  

Jude, along with a black male friend and two white women, showed up at a party on the city’s South Side. Most of the guests were off-duty police officers. Jude and his friends immediately felt uncomfortable and left . Cops stormed out of the  house after them, with one of the cops alleging the group had taken his police badge. As the cops threatened the group, Jude’s friend tried to wake up the neighbors. “Nigger, shut up, it’s our world,” the cops warned. They then proceeded to beat the two men. The women called 911, but when two policemen arrived, one of them joined the assault. At one point, Jude was kicked so hard in the crotch that “his body left the ground,” according to the federal appeals court ruling. Pens  were stuck into Jude’s ear canals, and his fingers  were broken “by bending them back until they snapped.” One of the police thrust a gun to Jude’s head and said, “I’m the fucking police. I can do whatever I want to do. I could kill you.”
In 2006, an all-white jury acquitted the three police officers charged in the beating, the prosecution hampered by perjury and the police department’s “code of silence.” Thousands marched through the streets in indig­nation, demanding a federal investigation. They were led by Michael McGee Jr., an alderman who was the son of the co-leader of the Lacy coalition.  
For reasons that have never been adequately analyzed, the protests were muted. One factor is that the most disturbing details took years to emerge, coming out only during a subsequent federal trial. Second, Jude himself was not the most upstanding of citizens. On the night of his beating, he was on parole for felony convictions for selling marijuana and bribing a police offi­cer, and he had earlier performed as a stripper at a bachelorette party. Third, there was no well-respected leader or coalition to organize the public’s disgust. Howard Fuller had moved on to an exclusive focus on school vouchers. The elder McGee had used his recognition from the Lacy campaign to become an alderman, but he then increasingly developed a penchant for hotheaded, inflammatory rhetoric. Although designed to scare whites into action, the rhetoric instead scared everyone. After two terms he was defeated by a black police sergeant. The younger McGee was also fond of off-the-cuff , bombastic statements, some of them homophobic and misogynistic. This hamstrung his ability to organize. (The younger McGee ended his aldermanic term in a prison cell, convicted of nine felony counts including bribery and extortion.)  
After the police were acquitted in state court of the Jude beating, even the district attorney called the outcome “a cover-up.” Federal officials then investigated. Ultimately, four officers pled guilty to lesser charges including perjury, one officer was acquitted, and three were convicted of assaulting Jude and violating his civil rights.  
On January 6, 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a front-page story about a group of rogue police officers known as “the Punishers.” Members of the group, named after a vigilante comic-book character, reportedly wore black gloves and caps with skull emblems while on duty. Some had skull tattoos. Jude himself had referred to one of the police officers who beat him as “Mr. Punisher,” referring to the policeman’s skull tattoo, which looked exactly like the logo of the comic-book vigilante.  
The Punishers first came to the attention of a police commander after the Jude beating. “This is a group of rogue officers within our agency who I would characterize as brutal and abusive,” the commander wrote in a 2007 report. “At least some of the officers involved in the Jude case were associ­ated with this group, although there is reason to believe the membership extended beyond those who  were convicted in the case.”  The department briefly investigated the group, but little was done. Police chief Edward Flynn declined to be interviewed for the 2011 Journal Sentinel story. Instead, he issued a statement calling the existence of the Punishers a “rumor.” There was no follow-up story, no public statement of concern from any official, no editorial calling for further investigation. The story died after one day.
 * * *
Excerpted from the book by Barbara J. Miner, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New York: New Press, 2013.)

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.
— — —
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.
— — —
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? 

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.