by Félix Pérez; image: candidate Chris Larson addresses school walk-in participants
Milwaukee parents, residents, educators, students and community groups are organized, vocal and persistent when it comes to derailing the effort by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his friends in the state legislature to take over their community schools. Just last week they staged more than a hundred school walk-ins; they have testified at hearings; they have coordinated multiple rallies, written letters, placed phone calls and collected petition signatures.
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So last week’s outcome in the primary election for Milwaukee County Executive came as welcome news. Chris Larson, despite being outspent 20-1 and trailing incumbent Chris Abele by 13 points three weeks before the primary, advanced to the April 5 general election against Abele. Larson, who bested Abele by 708 votes out of more than 95,000 votes cast, opposes the state school takeover law. Abele, a multimillionaire who contributed $1.75 million to his campaign compared with slightly less than $100,000 raised by Larson, supports the law.
“The schools aren’t failing our communities. The leaders are failing our schools,” said Larson at a school walk-in the morning after his victory. The takeover law, said Larson, is “designed to hurt our schools. It is not designed to try and make them succeed.”
Martha Treder, who has two teenage children, said she joined other residents who volunteered for Larson because of his opposition to the takeover law. “I believe in community schools, and so does Chris Larson. I believe in maintaining local control. Only the people in the community know what students need.”
Treder attributed Larson’s vote total to “people like me who pulled together, worked together, want to see change and want to make it happen.” She added,”We need to put our children first. We need to put people before profits and stop the privatization of our schools.”
Elementary school teacher Kim Schroeder said the takeover law played a significant role in the primary results. “Families and educators believe schools belong to the community rather than some outside corporation. We are up against big money, but the people of Milwaukee are behind their public schools.”
Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, credited Larson’s long-time support for community schools for his come-from-behind win. Larson has participated in three school walk-ins and has advocated for the needs of Milwaukee students and schools in the face of a Republican-controlled legislature. The primary election outcome “really energized a lot of us. We’ll fight even harder now.”
Teacher Princess Moss, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association, spoke at one of the school walk-ins.
As an educator for 30 years, I know one thing is certain: students cannot focus inside the classroom if their basic needs are not being met outside the classroom. That’s why NEA believes that community schools are a positive alternative to school takeovers. Let’s strengthen students, support parents and build up our communities. We know what works, we know community schools work; we must take back out schools from the corporate profiteers. We must take back our schools from politicians and their cookie-cutter solutions that we know do not work.
Increasingly, Republican governors and state legislators are resorting to school takeovers, which they argue are a means to help struggling schools. Opponents say the laws ignore community voices, lead to the privatization of public schools and trample on local control.
“The rapid proliferation of the takeover district as an educational panacea is alarming,” concluded a report released this month by the Center for Popular Democracy. Examining three takeover districts in Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan, the Center found “no clear evidence that takeover districts actually achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools.” Instead, the report concluded:
- Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.
- State takeover districts have created a breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.
- Staff face high turnover and instability, creating a disrupted learning environment for children, and
- Students of color and those with special needs face harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices that further entrench a two-tiered educational system.
Larson, a state senator, has introduced legislation that would repeal the Milwaukee Public schools takeover plan. Said Larson:
Local control is at the bedrock of Wisconsin’s educational system. Our neighbors elect local school boards who are entrusted with the management and success of their districts. Our local elected school boards were set up in such a way to encourage community input and to give a voice to those benefiting from our public schools. Though the need to address struggling public schools is urgent and real, the creation of the MPS Takeover was a thinly veiled attempt to orchestrate a complete seizure of certain schools in our communities.
Larson’s legislation has a dozen cosponsors.