By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.
When President Trump appointed Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education and made charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of “school choice” practically the sole emphasis for his K-12 education policy—other than slashing funding and programs for public schools—he brought national attention to a decades-long battle over privatizing public education that was already raging in communities across the nation.
The community that’s been on the frontline of the fight for the longest has been Milwaukee, where the city’s public schools have been undermined by a nearly 30-year-old voucher program—the nation’s oldest—and an invasion of charter schools going back to 1993, when the state passed its first charter school law just a year after the very first charter school law in the nation passed in Minnesota.
Despite the decades-long effort to privatize Milwaukee’s local school, recent events in that community have revealed how public school advocates can successfully fight back against the forces of privatization.
In Milwaukee’s recent school board election, a slate of five candidates swept into office under a banner of turning back years of efforts to privatize the district’s schools. The win for public schools was noteworthy not only because it took place in a long-standing bastion of school choice, but also because the winning candidates were backed by an emerging coalition that adopted a bold, new politics that demands candidates take up a full-throated opposition to school privatization rather than cater to the middle.
Unsurprisingly, the coalition includes the local teachers’ union, who’ve long been skeptical of charters, vouchers, and other privatization ideas, but joining the teachers in their win are progressive activists, including the Wisconsin chapter of the Working Families Party, and local civil rights advocacy groups, including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Voces de la Frontera.
Unifying this diverse coalition was an uncompromising political argument about what makes public schools truly public and why that distinction matters.
“Our toughest challenge has been to educate voters on what is truly a public school,” Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union, tells me in a phone conversation. “We’ve had to draw an extremely hard line” between public versus private, she says.
“We intended to make sure voters would clearly have a choice between candidates who truly supported public schools versus candidates who do not,” echoes Wisconsin Working Families Party State Director Marina Dimitrijevic in a separate phone call. “We’re clear we’re not going to compromise on this. There’s no gray area.”
This progressive coalition took this bold stance in Milwaukee not because they had polling data and focus group results showing popular opinion would flock to their side or because they had high-paid consultants who advised them it would be the safe road to take. They made the decision to be unabashedly pro-public education because in Milwaukee the stakes are extraordinarily high.
“Privatization is going to kill this city and take our students and the teaching profession with it,” says Mizialko.
“Instead of just fighting back, we have to take back,” says Dimitrijevic.
The Milwaukee win for public schools and how it was accomplished are reflective of a wider debate, all the way up to the national level, driven by anger progressive voters feel, their growing reluctance to compromise, and their desires for candidates to take bold stands on issues that matter most to families, workers, and communities.
Why Milwaukee Matters
The school choice landscape in Milwaukee is perhaps more thoroughly entrenched and more maddeningly complicated than anywhere else, and it’s indicative of how the politics of choice and privatization have been intentionally deceptive and purposefully opaque.
When Wisconsin started its first school voucher program, it was limited to only low-income families in urban communities. That placed a big target on the back of Milwaukee, the city with the state’s largest school system, the highest concentration of households living in poverty (primarily African-American), and some of the most visible economic inequity and racial segregation.
Over time, voucher proponents have been very successful at artfully expanding the program to include more students and schools. As Erin Richards explains in a deep dive for the American Prospect, “When the Milwaukee voucher program went into effect, it initially allowed just over 300 children to attend seven private schools with vouchers worth about $2,500 annually. The schools could not be religious and were not allowed to have more than 49 percent of their students on vouchers.”
State leaders gradually expanded participation in the program by increasing student enrollment caps and adjusting household income eligibility restrictions to allow more families. Then, a big jump in program expansion occurred in 1995 when religious schools were allowed to participate. Another big lift came in 2011 when Republican Governor Scott Walker and GOP leaders raised the income threshold for participation to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, eliminated the enrollment cap altogether, and expanded the program to the city of Racine. The program would eventually become a springboard for taking vouchers statewide in 2013 and generating what’s now become a juggernaut industry diverting ever-increasing hundreds of millions of the state’s education dollars to private schools.
In the current school year, there are 129 private schools participating in the Milwaukee voucher program, with a total enrollment of 28,917 students. For each student in the program, between $7,754 and $8,400 is transferred from public school funding to a private school. The program is estimated to cost nearly $222 million.
Charter School Slippery Slope
Wisconsin’s history with charter schools has resembled a similar slippery slope.
When Wisconsin first passed its law allowing charter schools, the state limited charters to 10 local school districts, and only local school districts would be allowed to authorize charters, which would operate strictly in the district boundaries. The intention was to make sure locally elected school boards retained governance responsibilities for the schools and that local school districts would still employ charter school staffs, which would retain union representation. These schools became known as “instrumentality” charters, an unhelpfully wonky term if there ever was one.
Then in 1997, the state also created independent charter schools, called non-instrumentality charters, that operate completely independent from the district. These schools have appointed boards operating totally separate from district governance, school staff do not belong to the union, and school operations can be contracted out to management groups and other private vendors, including for-profit firms. School districts retained the power to authorize non-instrumentality charters, but authorization was expanded to the City of Milwaukee and to public universities and technical colleges in the state. Non-instrumentality charter schools that are not authorized by local school boards are sometimes referred to as 2r or 2x charter schools after the subsection of the statute that created them, another bit of jargon adding to the confusion.
Nearly all non-instrumentality charters in Wisconsin are located in Milwaukee. In the 2017–18 school year, the most recent data available, Milwaukee had 42 charter schools. Half of these charters are overseen by the school board, but only five of the 21 are instrumentality charter schools, and 16 are non-instrumentality charters. Thirteen of the remaining schools are independent charters authorized through a local university, and eight are City of Milwaukee charter schools.
The jumbled education landscape in Milwaukee reflects the persistent calls for “more school options,” coming from not only the Trump administration and DeVos but also from many state governors. Using Milwaukee as a guidepost, proponents of privatization have spread school voucher programs to 15 states, and nearly all states now allow charter schools, often with multiple authorizers that, with greater frequency, tend not to be local school districts.
Which Schools Are Truly Public?
Advocates for public schools in Milwaukee maintain this confusing landscape of schools is intentional. “It’s manufactured confusion,” says Mizialko, “and it’s especially tough for parents who are already struggling to wade into the confusion.”
It’s also a deliberate effort to make the argument for what is a truly public school more difficult. Are private voucher schools funded mostly by taxpayer money public? Which charter schools are public schools? Only those governed directly by an elected board? What about charters that are board-authorized but independent? Or are all charter schools, even those completely disconnected from local control, public schools, as most charter school advocates insist?
These are not nitpicking questions. Private schools that draw public funding are still free to have enrollment policies and programs that exclude specific populations of students, including students with disabilities, students with behavior problems, and students whose lifestyles or families do not embrace a heterosexual preference.
Charter schools have argued in courts of law that they are not subject to federal and state statutory requirements that apply to public entities. Charter operators often retain private ownership of real estate, buildings and school supplies that have been purchased with public money, even if the schools close. And charter schools and their management groups, many which operate for-profit, frequently aren’t forthcoming with information about owner and employee compensation, budget expenditures, and business dealings with outside service providers.
The confusion over public versus private made it doubly tough for the Milwaukee coalition backing candidates in the school board race to limit their support for pro-public contestants only.
“The argument that charter schools are public schools is meant to be confusing,” says Mizialko, so candidates the coalition would support had to make clear in their campaigns that only schools governed by locally elected boards, in this case the instrumentality charter schools, were truly public schools. Candidates also had to pledge to fight off threats to Milwaukee schools coming from outside the district or from groups in Milwaukee working with outside groups to undermine public schools. And candidates also had to agree their campaigns would be multiracial and engage and involve parents.
These clear distinctions are especially difficult in left-leaning politics, Dimitrijevic explains, where Democrats can be “diverse and strong” on an array of issues but often have the school privatization problem wrong. “For all our candidates,” she says, “we insisted they draw a bright line between public schools and privately operated schools… They had to agree to no public money for privately operated schools as a principle they would not waver from.”
Diversity Makes a Difference
The commitment to diversity was also a key to the campaign’s success.
The effort to embrace diversity started some time ago, Mizialko explains, with the formation of the local grassroots group Schools and Communities United in 2009. Former teachers’ union president Bob Peterson, who won the at-large school board position in this year’s school board race, was instrumental to helping form the group as a response to an effort by the state to strip the elected school board of much of its authority and give the city’s mayor sole control of the schools.
In helping to form the group, Peterson’s motto was, “If there isn’t disagreement among members of the group, then the table isn’t big enough.” But participants had to agree to support public schools.
This uncompromising stand for diversity and public schools in opposition to outsiders and big money was an easy fit for the Working Families Party. WFP came to Wisconsin in 2015 and began partnering with labor unions and community organizers to help deliver recent victories for progressives in electoral contests across the state, including Tony Evers’ remarkable upset of Scott Walker in the 2018 governor’s race.
“We see ourselves as a party that is fundamentally multiracial, multicultural, and gender diverse,” says Dimitrijevic. “That’s how we show up.”
WFP also has a history of backing pro-public school candidates. In 2013, the local chapter of WFP in Bridgeport, Connecticut, successfully backed a slate of candidates who upset incumbent school board members after the board hired Paul Vallas, a free-market education reform advocate behind school privatization efforts in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New Orleans.
More recently, in 2018, WFP helped propel Cynthia Nixon’s upstart campaign taking on incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, using support for public education as a defining wedge issue. Nixon’s campaign was unsuccessful, but other candidates WFP endorsed in state races threw out Democratic incumbents who backed charter schools and flipped the state legislature in favor of public schools.
Democrats who feel they’ve been disenfranchised from their party because of its willingness to compromise on school privatization, “now feel they have a home in the WFP,” says Dimitrijevic. Combining those voters with the strength of the teachers’ unions and local civil rights organizers resulted in a formidable factor in the race.
“We won with candidates who are real people in our community” and representative of its racial and cultural diversity, says Mizialko, but also who “have a track record of solid support for public education and understanding of its vital role in democracy and building strong community.”
Making Defectors Pay
Making support for public schools a nonnegotiable in the race meant pushing the Democratic Party into an internal conflict that makes establishment-leaning members uncomfortable.
The fact past and current members of the Milwaukee board, mostly Democrats, approved non-instrumentality charters, by better than a four-to-one ratio, over charters governed by the board is perplexing. Why would school board members approve so many charters it would have no ability to govern?
“The fact previous school boards approved non-instrumentality charter schools reflects the ability of those pushing privatization to convince public officials to authorize these schools,” Mizialko argues. “We’ve had people on the board and city council who have openly colluded with privatizers. Their ethics and values are aligned with the privatizers.”
Mizialko also points to a pervasive fear and resignation among Democrats where many have said that charters are inevitable and there’s no way to stop them. They fear that should the school board deny new independent charters, they would get approved anyway by the city or a university, so the district might as well authorize them and get its cut (charter authorizers in the state, including school districts, are funded in part by how many charters they provide services to).
But the winning slate was adamantly opposed to what previous boards had approved and was willing to make that a wedge issue in the race, despite whatever discomfort it caused. It may have helped that four of five victorious contestants were first-time candidates. Among the first-timers was Erika Siemsen who unseated incumbent Wendell Harris, whom the teachers’ union had backed in the last election but who flipped in his position on privatization.
Harris, who had been elected on a platform of opposing expansion of non-instrumentality charter schools, went back on that promise and voted in favor of allowing one of these charters to take over part of the campus of a Milwaukee public high school.
Due to his change of heart, WFP and the teachers specifically targeted him and had in Siemsen an ideal candidate who was not only a retired teacher but also would unequivocally take on Harris over his sell-out to the charter industry.
“The whole element of fear and compromise [among current and recent board members] is something I can’t stand,” says Mizialko.
Apparently, a majority of Milwaukee voters couldn’t either. Siemsen’s margin of victory was 60 percent to 40 percent.
A Thin Case for Privatization
Proponents of privatization will no doubt respond to their defeat by hauling out old arguments about how voucher programs and charter schools are “what works” and what’s “best for kids.”
These arguments have become remarkably thin.
As Chalkbeat recently reports, “New research on a closely watched school voucher program [in Louisiana] finds that it hurts students’ math test scores—and that those scores don’t bounce back, even years later.”
The findings are consistent with previous research from Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., showing that giving parents vouchers to transfer their students to private schools generally results in negative effects, particularly in math achievement, the subject regarded as least dependent on family background and most indicative of instructional quality.
Regarding evidence for the superiority of Milwaukee charter schools, studies showing a charter advantage are often more indicative of student demographics than pure school performance. While some Milwaukee independent charters appear to be successful, many have turned out to be a complete bust.
A much-ballyhooed study from 2015 found urban charter schools, including those in Milwaukee, have more success with African-American and Latino students. But education researcher and university professor Julian Vasquez Heilig notes, “The performance impact is .008 and .05 for Latinos and African Americans in charter schools, respectively. These numbers are larger than zero, but you need a magnifying glass to see them.”
In the meantime, school privatization has done absolutely nothing good for Milwaukee children as a whole. After nearly 30 years of vouchers and charters, Milwaukee students are consistently behind their peers in other urban communities and aren’t catching up, according to results on the Nation Assessment of Education Performance, considered the gold standard in assessment. According to the most recent NAEP, among the 27 urban districts included in the exams, fourth-graders in Milwaukee had the second-lowest scores in the nation for math and reading, behind Detroit. Milwaukee eighth-graders also bested only Detroit in math and scored above only Detroit and Cleveland in reading.
Going forward, Mizialko says her union and other members of the winning coalition feel very confident in the new board members because “they have very clear convictions. They’ve personally witnessed the collateral damage committed by privatization. And they’re taking cues from our children and families to push for what’s good for our district.”
Dimitrijevic credits the continued success of pro-public school progressives in the state to momentum created by the 2018 win for Evers in toppling Walker. Noting the slim majority Trump won in Wisconsin in 2016—only 0.8 percentage points—she suggests that to a great degree what happens in the Badger State could determine what transpires in the 2020 presidential election. “As Wisconsin goes, maybe so goes the nation.”