More than 1,000 people attended an education rights rally Saturday that started at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts in the North side of the city, wound along a three-mile march route over the 16th street bridge — now commonly known as the Father Groppi Unity Bridge — and ended at Forest Home Avenue School on the South side. The rally was organized to call for fully funded public education, to stop the state’s path towards privatization of public schools, hold voucher schools accountable and keep a local voice in decisions made about Milwaukee’s public schools.
“For too long the city fathers have abandoned public education instead of trying to fix public education,” said Bob Peterson, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) president. “We are calling on all stake holders to fix public education, because Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all children. It’s time for people to step up.”
As the national debate over the direction of education rages, Milwaukee appears to be ground zero for the school choice movement, cuts in public education and expansion of charter schools that many public education advocates believe are detrimental to students and schools in the city.
A recent report released shows that Wisconsin has been a “leader” in cuts to public education since the recession hit in 2008. The state ranks seventh in per pupil cuts, a reduction of over 15 percent per student, or over $1,000 per pupil.
Several measures pushed through by the Walker administration in 2011 included an estimated $2.3 billion cut to K-12 education, technical colleges and the UW system schools. In the latest budget — 2013 — Walker’s administration kept funding for public schools at about the same level as 2011.
Simultaneously, local governments were stripped of authority to raise property taxes to help offset the cost of losing the state aid for schools. They are now permitted provided to hold a city wide referendum to raise property taxes to fund schools.
Milwaukee’s school district was hit especially hard while there was an increase in the city’s longstanding voucher program, known by advocates as the “parental choice program.”
The Parental Choice program in Milwaukee has a long history dating back to 1990 when the program was set up through the state Legislature. The original intention of the program was to allow low-income children to attend a private school of their choice. This changed in 2011, when the Walker administration removed the income cap for students to be eligible for the program. Under this new rule, any student who has been in the program more than a year or had been on a waiting list to receive a voucher no longer has to meet the 300 percent of poverty level requirement.
A voucher is capped at a maximum of $6,442, which is expected to increase to a cap of between $7,200 and $7,800 in the next school year. This is compares to per pupil funding at Milwaukee Public Schools between state and local funding of just under $10,000.
Teachers and public education advocates have long criticized the voucher program in Milwaukee as taking away much needed funds from Milwaukee Public Schools, with the new development opening the door to wealthy families in the city to use tax payer money to send their children to private schools. Teachers at private schools do not need a teaching certification, causing concern about the quality of education that students receive.
This school year, 123 schools have applied to be recipients of voucher payments in Milwaukee. A full list can be found here. Since the program began over three decades ago, almost $1.3 billion has gone into the voucher program in Milwaukee.
Beyond the voucher program, public school advocates are concerned about the growing number of charter schools in Milwaukee. The charter school program was set up in Wisconsin in 1993 and has since been expanded and updated.
Charter schools receive full public funding and are required to have certified teachers in the classrooms. They are set up through the Milwaukee School Board and allow private schools to convert to charter schools. A Rocketschool charter opened its doors in Milwaukee this year, causing concern about the direct privatization of schools in the city.
The Rocketschool charter company was set up in California and is rapidly expanding across the country. A few key elements set this model apart from other schools including a learning lab, where children are left to be attended by learning instructors — employees without teaching certification — have no arts and music programs and typically have six fewer teachers than a public school of a comparable size.
Another concern is the proposal to make Milwaukee a recovery school district like that in New Orleans. The Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce met last month with Mayor Tom Barrett and MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton. The proposal would remove the lowest performing schools out of MPS control and put them in a state run school district, allowing for drastic restructuring of employees and curriculum. More on that meeting can be found here.
Saturday’s rally showed that teachers, parents, students and community members are not happy with the direction that education has been going and will continue to go in a move away from traditional public schools. A coalition of voices brought the rally together including MTEA, the NAACP, WIsconsin State AFL-CIO, Voces de la Frontera and many others that can be seen in this full list of sponsors.