Amy Mizialko, Labor Notes - If the Wisconsin legislature had gotten its way, private charter companies would have taken over at least one more public school in Milwaukee this year—pushing us dangerously near a tipping point to the planned extinction of our school district.
But instead, thanks to the dogged activism of educators, students, parents, and community activists, we have staved off the immediate threat. The takeover commissioner backed away from announcing target schools, then resigned his post. And on October 12 we celebrated the news that our district is out of danger from the takeover law.
We did it by raising a ruckus, by nurturing a grassroots coalition over the long term, and by sticking to the principle of “all for one and one for all.” And we don’t intend to let up.
Twenty years ago it never occurred to me how bad things could get—that we would be fighting for the very survival of our public school system.
Milwaukee was the first school district to offer vouchers, and one of the first cities where private charter schools took root. Between the two, we’ve lost 44 percent of our public school student population.
As charter schools expanded, our union did not draw a hard line in the sand. It didn’t occur to us in the 1990s and 2000s that we could lose students on this scale. But that’s changed as we’ve watched the systematic privatization of schools not only here, but in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta, Little Rock, and Newark.
Sixteen months ago, as part of the state budget, Republican legislators passed a plan to end public schools in Milwaukee. They empowered the county executive to appoint a takeover commissioner who would choose schools to hand over to charter school companies.
The new law required that at least one school, and up to three, be taken over in the 2016-17 school year. The following year, it could be up to three schools, and every year after that, up to five.
What would happen to any school taken over? There would be no requirements for certified teachers. There would be no publicly elected board answerable to community and parents.
The architects of this law live in rich, almost exclusively white communities. They aren’t from Milwaukee, yet they’ve decided they know what’s best for Milwaukee students and families.
Luckily, students, families, and educators weren’t facing this threat alone. We have many partners in Schools and Communities United, a coalition our union has been working for a few years to develop.
“Creating a space for the community to gather, express concerns, and plan for change has been invaluable in this takeover fight,” said union Secretary Ingrid Walker-Henry, a co-chair of the coalition. “The combined knowledge and skills has proven to be effective.”
“Our focus is singular, but our membership is multi-faceted,” said Marva Herndon of Women Committed to an Informed Community, one of the coalition’s key partner groups. “There are parents, grandparents, retirees, students, teachers, real estate brokers, transportation workers, researchers, and computer programmers, to name a few.”
We started showing up at school board meetings and all the other public events where the county executive or the takeover commissioner appeared.
Community members and educators made calls to Senator Alberta Darling, one of the law’s architects, telling her, “Hands off of our public schools!” She instructed her staff to tell people to stop calling her. After we made that public on social media, the calls doubled.
Another time we went to the rich school district where the takeover commissioner is superintendent, and held a press conference while he was trying to conduct a school board meeting. Our message to the people there was, “You have democratic control of your schools, and that’s all we want for ours.”
We bought rush-hour radio time on the most-listened-to stations on each side of town. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the nation, with most Spanish speakers living on the South Side and most African Americans living on the North Side. So one ad was in English, one in Spanish. Both featured students and parents educating the public about what was coming their way.
And at the school level, we held walk-ins—where students, parents, and educators meet before school to rally and then walk in together—calling for full and fair funding, local control, and the expansion of community schools. The first walk-in was in June 2015, the same month the legislation was announced. About 30 schools participated, and 10 more followed suit the next week.
In the latest walk-in October 6, 117 schools participated.
On April 22, the commissioner was supposed to begin a qualitative analysis of the 53 schools on the state’s list. On May 10 they would announce which eight schools would be on the short list for takeover.
Our attitude was, “Tell us.” We were ready to zero in and defend those schools—to educate local parents, neighbors, and students, to let them know, “We will not let this happen in any neighborhood.”
We even held civil disobedience trainings at our union, and began to get ourselves mentally and physically prepared for direct action.
They never did announce the eight targeted schools. In June, the takeover commissioner resigned—and in October, the state announced that our district no longer qualified for the takeover plan. Despite egregious disinvestment, our students had made notable achievement gains.