‘Not for sale’: Educators and parents in Milwaukee score victory against privatization

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by Mary Ellen Flannery, this article originally appeared on NEAToday.org

A recent Milwaukee school committee decision sends a strong message to public school students, parents and NEA educators: When you show up, when you use your collective voice and flex your union muscle on behalf of students, you  can make a difference for schools and students.

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Last week, after hearing from more than 50 public-school supporters during more than two hours of testimony, a Milwaukee School Board committee decided to drop privately run charter schools from the list of options for school improvement in Milwaukee. If approved by the entire school board, this would mean Milwaukee public schools on the state’s “not meeting expectations” list — there are currently 48 in the city — could not be privatized in the name of school “reform” and in the interest of private profiteers.

“Milwaukee is ground zero in the school privatization wars,” explained Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, in a recent blog post.  “For a quarter of century there has been a calculated, well-financed, and systematic effort to dismantle the city’s public school system. Conservatives in Wisconsin, emboldened by their control of the state government, have stepped up their efforts to transform public education into a privately run commodity.”

But, as Peterson notes, with MTEA’s leadership on this issue, Milwaukee’s community members are catching on—and saying no. Improve public schools, don’t abandon them, demanded the hundreds of participants at last week’s Milwaukee meeting.

“I don’t want my children’s education run by private companies who don’t understand what my children need, or know how to deal with a special education student,” said parent Monique McKinney, who cares for 13 children in her home. “As a parent, I’m involved in my children’s education, and I want to be part of the decision making to improve their schools.”

The speakers last week see school improvement as a community project, led by parents and educators working together. In Peterson’s testimony to the committee, he urged them to “unite with the thousands of employees who work for you and with the students and caregivers of our students in a joint effort to improve our lowest performing schools.” He reminded them that, if they chose to turn public schools into privately run charters, they would be out-sourcing hundreds of public jobs to private entities, and millions of dollars in taxpayer money would be going to private educational management firms.

The collective demonstration showed the power of MTEA members, who told committee members of their dedication to working together to create strong community schools that support children and families and improve Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. “It’s the child’s community that will make a difference, not some out-of-state, for-profit business that we know, in our hearts, aren’t out for our children’s welfare,” said MTEA teacher Linda Markowski. “Localizing, not ‘business-izing,’ is the answer.”

For-profit charter school companies aren’t the answer; working with local communities is, added MTEA member Amy Johnson, who is part of a school improvement team at Milwaukee’s Bay View High School. “The best thing to do is bring your community in, bring in your neighbors, your businesses. At Bay View, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re taking those steps.”

Several MTEA members also described the failures of private educational management organizations in Milwaukee. Currently Milwaukee Public Schools have contracts with privately run charter companies for 15 schools in the city. Most of those schools serve significantly fewer English language learners and students with special needs — a Milwaukee Journal study showed Milwaukee public schools enroll three times as many students learning English and twice as many students with special needs than its charter schools– and yet more than half of those independent charter schools are not meeting performance expectations.

The committee’s decision goes next to the full school board, and Peterson notes on his blog that he expects privatization proponents to lean hard on board members. But so will MTEA members, and Milwaukee’s concerned parents and community members. The question for the board, Peterson writes, is this: “Will public education be guided by principles of democracy or by the demands of privatization? Will Milwaukee’s publicly funded schools serve the communities where they are located, or will they be turned over to national McFranchise charter chains?

“Demand that the entire the Milwaukee School Board say ‘no’ to privatization and say ‘yes’ to community-based solutions.”

Photo: Light Brigading

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