This City Is Fighting Against Public School Privatization

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Milwaukee Public School parent Angela Walker rallies the community against a proposed takeover.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN — As Governor Scott Walker’s state budget inches toward passage, parents, teachers and students are taking to the streets to oppose sections of the education budget, which include sweeping changes they say would effectively privatize many public schools while draining funding from others.

On an afternoon in early June, a few dozen public school advocates marched up and down a busy street in the wealthy Milwaukee suburb Menomonee Falls, chanting, “Education is a civil right!” and “Down with privatization, up with MPS!” The group was picketing in the district of State Senator Alberta Darling (R) to oppose her bill to take over some low-performing Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and turn them over to private or charter operators. Those schools would be controlled by an appointed commissioner, not the elected school board. While the sponsors of the bill hail from the suburbs, the legislators who actually represent the impacted community in Milwaukee oppose the plan.

One of the demonstrators that day was Rafael Diaz, a junior at Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee. He said of Senator Darling and her co-sponsors: “They want to come into our schools, in a district they don’t represent, and take it over. But they don’t know what’s best for our schools.”

When ThinkProgress asked what he feared would result from the takeover, Diaz said he’s “worried the charters wouldn’t care for the students. MPS has to cater to every student, no matter how much help you need. When a charter comes in, they don’t have to offer that, so students will be neglected in the system, especially students with disabilities.”

The parents and teachers marching beside Diaz echoed his concerns, pointing to recent cases of private schools in Milwaukee expelling struggling students after cashing their voucher checks.


CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Others pointed to the lack of accountability in the existing voucher program, in which schools have shut down abruptly after state authorities discovered illegal behavior. And while low test scores at public schools are the justification for the new takeover bill, at some private religious schools receiving taxpayer vouchers, only a single student out of 400 could read or do math proficiently in 2011 or 2012, according to state tests.

Jennifer Epps-Addison, an activist and alumnus of the Milwaukee Public Schools whose two children currently attend, told ThinkProgress that instead of taking over the schools, the legislature should properly fund them.

“When I was a student schools offered drivers’ education, they offered Japanese, Latin, French and Spanish. Those are the types of experiences every single child deserves no matter what zip code they live in,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see what teachers are dealing with now: having to pay out of their own pockets just to provide basic supplies like markers and tissues, not being able to take kids on field trips.”

She noted that class sizes have also increased due to several years of budget cuts.

“My son has learning disability, a speech impediment and ADD,” she said. “He is in elementary school, in a class with 32 other students. He’s got both parents in the home, grandparents who support him, a family that can afford tutoring, and he’s still struggling. And his teacher is struggling too.”

A mural inside North Division High School in Milwaukee, one of the campuses that could be taken over.

A mural inside North Division High School in Milwaukee, one of the campuses that could be taken over.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

The proposal to take over low-scoring Milwaukee schools is modeled on New Orleans’ nearly-all-charter Recovery School District. That takeover of public schools was approved while the city was still reeling from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Just a few months after the storm drowned much of New Orleans, conservative economist Milton Friedman argued in the Wall Street Journal that the tragedy was “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” Amy Mizialko, a special education teacher and teacher’s union leader in Milwaukee, told ThinkProgress the “Katrina” for Milwaukee has been the school voucher program — one of the nation’s oldest and largest — that has siphoned funds away from inner city public schools until they reached what she called a “manufactured crisis.”

She said of one of the schools targeted for takeover, “When kids walked into Auer Avenue School 15 years ago, there was a full-time librarian, every day. There used to be full-time Physical Education, art and music teachers. We don’t have that anymore. So we don’t believe these are failing schools. We believe they’ve been failed.”

Mizialko and her fellow educators are also speaking out against another provision in the education budget that would ease teacher certification requirements so that anyone with a bachelor’s degree could teach English, math, social studies or science in Wisconsin — without any education-specific training. Under the provision, teaching other “non-core” would not even require a high school diploma.

“It’s part of a whole campaign to de-legitimize and de-professionalize the work teachers do,” said Mizialko, who has taught in MPS for 23 years and studied education at UW-Whitewater.

Over the past few weeks, as the education budget has advanced in the statehouse, the coalition Schools and Communities United has organized walk-outs, pickets and community meetings and circulated petitions to stop the proposed changes. They and others across the state have already been successful in pushing state lawmakers to undo Governor Walker’s proposed $127 million cut to K-12 schools, and they’re hoping to keep the pressure on to block the other policy proposals.

Epps-Addison said even if the takeover provision passes, “that doesn’t mean we can’t stop its implementation. You’ll see a groundswell of people who, once they know what schools they are going to target, won’t give them up quietly.”