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? 

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.

— — —
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.