Thursday, March 29, 2012

Milwaukee Community Leaders Support MPS Children’s Campaign

As MPS teachers deliberate and vote on whether to contribute a week’s worth of their wages to a class size relief fund, several community leaders have made the pledge of joining teachers. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers, MMAC President Tim Sheehy, School Board President Michael Bonds, and Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson have all made the pledge.

The community leaders pledged to make a contribution of a week’s worth of wages to the class size relief fund. Other community leaders who have made the pledge include MTEA Executive Director Sid Hatch; MPS School Board members Larry Miller and Terry Falk; Gerard Randall, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Partnership Academy; Wisconsin Assemblyman Fred Kessler; Milwaukee Alderperson Nik Kovak; Ellen Bravo, Exec Dir. of Family Values @ Work Consortium; Richard Pieper, retired businessman, and the Suzanne and Richard Pieper Family Foundation; Cynthia Ellwood, MPS Regional Specialist (East region); Katrice Cotton, MPS Regional Specialist (Southwest Region); and Robert Lowe, Professor of Education, Marquette University.

Community members may pledge by contacting MTEA President Bob Peterson at 414-259-1990 or Community donations will go to a special class size relief fund within the MPS Foundation. All community donations are tax deductible. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The MPS Children's Campaign - A Call for Support

Following are highlights from a presentation by Bob Peterson to union members on the proposal for a MPS Children’s Campaign. The remarks, given on March 20 at the Italian Community Center, were part of a series of meetings with members of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

We are here because our future is in jeopardy – the future of public education, the future of the children of Milwaukee, and he future of our union. Equally important, our own future is at stake – our jobs, our teaching profession and our families.

Under normal times, the MTEA Executive Board would not be holding these unprecedented meetings to discuss and debate our future.

But these are not normal times. These are challenging and extraordinary times. Such times demand bold and strategic responses.

To protect our future, we need to position our union strategically. We need to think into the future -- the next ten weeks as we work to defeat Scott Walker, the next ten months as we prepare for the non-contract future, and the next ten years as we work to rebuild public education and teaching profession.

The crisis we face did not happen overnight, nor will it be solved overnight. But we need to take action – now. Doing nothing in the face of crisis only leads to more crisis.

We need a bold action to wake up this community, to demonstrate that teachers are at the heart of the solution, and to call upon the community to join us. Our plan does that.

The MPS Children’s Campaign positions our union to head off attacks on Milwaukee teachers that we know will be part of the Republican media blitz in the next ten weeks during the Walker recall.

It also lays the groundwork for us to be stronger politically ten months from now as we prepare for when our contract expires and the school board will have unilateral power over our working future.

And it lays the basis of a long-term, community-wide campaign to protect MPS and the teaching profession – and to demand that this metropolitan community step up and support the only educational institution in Milwaukee that has the commitment, capacity and legal obligation to serve ALL children in the city of Milwaukee.

This is an ambitious agenda. As teachers, we can and will take the lead. But we can’t do it alone.  We need a community-wide campaign that links community, parents and teachers more boldly than ever before.

To jumpstart this campaign and to give it the power it needs, we are asking for teachers to make an investment.

Before I further explain the MPS Children’s Campaign, I want to explain why are in this crisis, and why it requires a proactive plan.

Internationally, political and economic forces – the 1% -- are systematically attacking the public sector, particularly the public schools. They are cutting funding, privatizing schools and services, and attacking public sector workers.

The President of the Australian Education Union, who spoke at Saturday’s meeting, told me how the teachers in Greece all were forced to take a 40% pay cut at a time of 30% inflation — making them suffer a 70% reduction in purchasing power.

Throughout the United States, there are attacks on school budgets and on public schools.

But Wisconsin is at the head of the pack. And a change in Wisconsin could help change the dynamic across the country.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker made the largest cut to public schools in our state’s history, and pushed through the most draconian anti-collective bargaining law in the nation.

Milwaukee is ground zero in the attacks on public education — not just in Wisconsin, but nationally. It has the country’s oldest and largest voucher program, one that is supported by extreme, conservative privatizers and right-wing think tanks and foundations. Milwaukee also has two chartering agencies outside the school district — the city government and UWM, whose schools have minimal democratic oversight and accountability. What’s more, Milwaukee has some of the most distressed neighborhoods in the country, and the metropolitan region’s segregation is so intense that it has earned a national reputation as an example of hypersegregation.

Long before the powers that be abandoned MPS, they abandoned entire neighborhoods and groups of people in our racially and economically segregated metropolitan region. Milwaukee has some of the worst child poverty in the country, some of the highest unemployment among Black men, and some of the widest racial disparities in income, incarceration, and infant mortality.

So we have a perfect storm.  Budget cuts, right wing takeover of our statehouse, the voucher program, and the deteriorating economic and social conditions of our city – all have put our children and our public schools in crisis.

MPS is in such dire straits that in a few years, it could go bankrupt, with the majority of schools being privatized via voucher or charter schools. MPS would become a small district serving only the most difficult to educate kids.

We know there is one thing we cannot do. And that is to do nothing. We can’t pretend that there’s not a freight train coming down the track and is about to hit us. Doing nothing in the face of a crisis leads to deeper crisis.

We need to have our immediate (10 week), short-term (10 month) and long-term (10 year) plan.  We will build on our Reimagine the MTEA structures, including our building level communication structures and advocacy groups.

In the next few weeks, our main focus is on the Walker Recall. The MPS Children’s Campaign will help with the Walker recall. Most important, it will provide a line of defense against the Republicans’ political posturing. We know Walker is going to blame the MPS financial crisis on the teachers’ union and its contracts — and pretend that our district's financial worries would go away if teachers paid more for their healthcare and pensions, and gave up their negotiated pay raises.

If we had done nothing, there would have been only one message before the public: Walker’s message. But we refuse to allow Walker — a man who has done more harm to public schools than any other governor in Wisconsin history — to control the message.

Through the MPS Children’s Campaign, we are putting forward a counter-message that teachers are willing to take the lead in protecting public education — and that teachers will forge necessary alliances with the community.

Recalling Walker is the immediate goal. The ten-month goal is to ensure the survival of our union and the teaching profession.

In 15 months, on June 30, 2013, our teacher contract expires. As a result of Walker’s Act 10, we will then be forced to live in a non-contract world. To prepare for that, within the next ten months, we need to be in such a strong position with community and parent partners that we can help shape that the decisions of the School Board. The School Board will develop a handbook months before the contract actually expires. We need to make sure we have enough allies in the community and on the school board so that the handbook policies are in the interests of the children we teach, and of the professionals and employees who work in this district.

The fact that union members are even considering the proactive response of the MPS Children’s Week, including an investment by teachers, has already been met with positive response from school board members. Board members Michael Bonds, Larry Miller and Terry Falk, for instance, have agreed to pledge a week of their wages to the class size relief fund that is being set up as part of the MPS Children’s Campaign.

We have also received commitments of a week’s wages from MPS Superintendent Greg Thornton, Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers, State Senator Chris Larson and several others.

The MPS Children’s Week campaign has the potential to be the game changer we need. 

- It flips the conversation — away from blaming teachers and MPS students and families, to understanding that teachers, working in alliance with the community are the only force that has the power to save MPS. 
- It deepens and expands our community ties – forging alliances that will be essential to our survival in the fast-approaching non-contract world.
- Challenges the powers that be to match teachers’ contributions. We are demanding of the city’s powerbrokers: no more excuses; support your public schools.
- It is so unexpected and so out of the ordinary that local, state and national media will be forced to take notice.
The longterm goal of our campaign is to protect and improve public education, the teaching profession and the quality of education of children of Milwaukee. We can do this if we build a broad movement of teachers, parents, community and civic organizations.
If there is anything we have learned in the last year, it is the need for collective action.

I have worked in this district as a classroom teacher for over 30 years. I have faith in teachers. And I believe that, working together, we can change the conversation, protect public education, defend the teaching profession, and help ensure a quality education for all children in this city.

In best of all words, our politicians and policymakers would not have let MPS into a wilderness of crisis. As teachers, every day we see the consequences of decades of abandonment of our neighborhoods and our schools on the faces of the children everyday. 

It is now our responsibility – it is our time -- to wake up this community and demand that it do the right thing for our public schools and for our children.

Check out the opinion pieces by MPS teachers Amy Mizialko and Caryl Davis from the March 23 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

For specifics and updates on details of the MPS Children’s Campaign, see the MTEA website.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wisconsin Gov. Walker Should Learn from JFK, not Rick Santorum

Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said he wanted to throw up after reading JFK’s speech on the separation of church and state. One wonders if he would jump for joy over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s pro-voucher policies that have increased public funding of religious schools.

The Milwaukee voucher program, the country’s oldest and largest, has been disguised as “choice.” But at its core, it is about transferring public dollars out of the public schools and into private religious schools.

Consider these comments from a recent study on the Milwaukee voucher program, where 85 percent of the 23,198 voucher students are in religious schools.

“The role of religion seemed to be pervasive in almost all of the sectarian schools we visited,” according to the study by the School Choice Demonstration Project of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “In fact, it was hard to distinguish religious activities from other activities given the common occurrence of class periods starting with the reading of a Bible verse or prayer and other religious topics areas being dispersed throughout class lectures.”

Although Gov. Walker cut public education funding more than any time in Wisconsin’s history, he championed the expansion of the Milwaukee private school voucher program, with an estimated $128 million in taxpayer dollars this year going to religious schools.

Walker and Santorum’s policies stand in sharp contrast to the position of President John F. Kennedy.

During the 1960 campaign, anti-Catholic prejudice threatened to derail Kennedy’s presidential hopes, with accusations that Kennedy’s allegiance to the Pope in Rome would supersede his responsibilities to the American people. In what has long been considered a watershed speech, Kennedy directly addressed the issue in remarks in Houston. 

Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

The tempest caused by Santorum’s theocratic remarks focused on the overall issue of separating church and state. Few commentators have noted the Kennedy’s specific reference to public funding of religious education, which at the time generally was known as “parochiaid” in the form of tuition tax credits. The bottom line is that Kennedy rejected such initiatives and said, without equivocation or caveats, that the separation of church and state is “absolute”, and that “no church or church schools is granted any public funds or political preference” [emphasis added].

Lawmakers in Wisconsin, unfortunately, did not follow Kennedy’s advice; like the U.S. Supreme Court, they fell prey to the twisted logic that the voucher goes to the parents, not to the religious school, even though the voucher checks are delivered directly to the school as a single payment and the parents never see the money.

Gov. Walker has made matters worse by expanding the voucher program. It approaches, in size,  the state’s second largest school districts  — but with minimal public oversight or accountability. 

The recent study of the voucher program by the University of Arkansas Center on School Choice shows how the Wisconsin voucher program is fundamentally a public subsidy of private religious education.

In the 2010-2011 school year, for example, 90 of the 105 schools in the Milwaukee program were religious and another seven were “non-religious with a religious tradition.” Only eight schools were non-religious—less than 8 percent of all voucher schools. Nearly 85 percent of all voucher students were enrolled in religious schools, primarily Catholic and Lutheran schools.

Since the voucher program’s beginning in 1990, there have been ongoing concerns about the public funding of religion. To ease such concerns, the voucher program has nominally required that students be able to “opt out” of any religious curriculum or activities at a voucher school. According to the University of Arkansas study, however, staff at some of the religious schools are openly disdainful of the “opt out” requirement and basically ignore it. 

As one teacher “unapologetically explained” to the study’s researchers, “If you don’t believe in God, sorry about that, but it’s a religious school and I’m going to talk about it.”  

The study went on to note that the staff at explicitly religious voucher schools “openly acknowledge their religiosity [and] tend to expect students to accept that religion as a major aspect of their school experience.”

One should not be surprised by a major finding of the study that “the role of religion seemed to be pervasive in almost all of the sectarian schools we visited.”

JFK called for an absolute and complete separation of church and state, and explicitly rejected any public funding of religious schools. Hopefully, Santorum’s comments will be a wake up call to realize how much we have allowed right-wing conservatives and religious ideologues to distort our public discourse and undermine our democratic ideals.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

10 Reasons to Be in Madison WI on March 10

Tens of thousands of people will gather in Madison on Saturday, March 10 to mark the one-year anniversary of Gov. Walker’s signing of Act 10 that ended collective bargaining rights from over 100,000 public sector workers in Wisconsin.

Busloads of people from across the state will converge on Madison for a 2 PM rally. (To reserve your seat on a free bus from Milwaukee go to or call 414-259-1990.)

Here are 10 reasons why you should come to Madison on March 10:

1) Collective bargaining is a basic civil and human right guaranteed by the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights. Wisconsin was the first state to guarantee it for public workers in 1959. That right should be restored.

2) Walker enacted the largest cuts to education in the history of the state – nearly $1 billion  – harming hundreds of thousands of children and students. He did this while writing a blank check for the expansion of the private school voucher program. 

3) Walker cut over $500 million from the BadgerCare program endangering health care insurance coverage for tens of thousands of people.

4) Walker’s policies lost Wisconsin more private sector jobs than any other state in the nation in the last six months. While Walker blamed the high jobless rate on a lack of trained workers, he severely cut funds to state technical colleges (30% cut in general aid) and to the University of Wisconsin.

5) Walker refused $810 million in federal aid for high-speed rail, setting back mass transportation for decades and sacrificing thousands of potential jobs.

6) Despite claims of budget shortfalls, Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature passed tax breaks for corporations and the rich that come to $2.3 billion in the next ten years. 

7) Walkers supported an anti-environmental mining bill and expressed his willingness to sell off Wisconsin wetlands.

8) Walker decided to divert $25.6 millions of federal funds for people in need of home mortgage relief into the general state budget. 

9) Walker replaced state civil service jobs with patronage appointments. Given that four of Walker’s staff and appointees while he was Milwaukee County Executive have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors, this should give one pause.

10) Walker signed an unnecessary and burdensome voter photo-ID bill that might disenfranchise tens of thousands of people. Most of those disenfranchised — the poor, the elderly, people of color — tend to vote Democratic.

Wait! There are more than 10 reasons to be in Madison on March 10 – here are some sent to me by my colleagues
  • For my daughter and for all my neighbors’ daughters and sons.
  • To be a voice for equality.
  •   Because my 8th grade students asked me to be there.
  • To be a voice for the most vulnerable...and/or those who do not have a voice- Kids and people with special needs who need health care!
  • To stand up for myself; all that I have dedicated myself to, sacrificed for, and contracted for. Supporting a morally- conscious society.
  • To stand up for my profession, colleagues, school, and community.
  •  Solidarity.
  • To be with friends and like-minded people.
  • For future generations.
  •  To feel that collective energy and power. To see and hear we ARE still being supported.
  •   Because with all my heart I believe in public education.
  • Because I love the beauty of Wisconsin. I love its glaciated and un-glaciated lands, its big cities, its towns and its rural areas, its rivers and lakes, its ice and snow, and its hot, humid summers. I will be in Madison because I love Wisconsin's children and Scott Walker will NOT take away their right to experience the Wisconsin I love!
  • A school that isn't good enough for MY child is not good enough for ANY child and we need to make every school better than good enough for EVERY child.
  • It’s fun!
— — —
In case you missed it— two articles of note:
First, my opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads on Sunday challening the latest pro-voucher report.

Second, a great article: ‘A Smart ALEC threatens public education.” Published in the March Phi Delta Kappan, the article is by Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education at UW Madison, and Julie Mean, chair of the Department of Education Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison.