By Jay Bullock Special to Published Jun 30, 2015 at 9:02 AM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

Early in June, the Milwaukee Public Schools held a public informational meeting about the Wisconsin state legislature’s plan to take school buildings, students, equipment, and funding from MPS to give it all over to voucher or charter school operators. The tone of the meeting was dire, but the warnings from MPS staff and board members who spoke were nothing new for those of you who have been following what I’ve had to say on the issue.

The plan, allegedly to improve educational outcomes for Milwaukee’s most challenging students, legislates no particular change to what happens within those taken-over schools; legislators believe, simply, that merely changing governance of these schools, removing them from the oversight of the democratically elected Milwaukee Board of School Directors, is enough to turn them around.

Among the speakers that night was state representative Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee, who described how the takeover plan—a major piece of legislation impacting the state’s largest school system and largest city—was put into the budget by Republican lawmakers with no public hearing, no input from those affected by the plan, and unanimous opposition from those representing Milwaukee.

And, Goyke said, he believed the plan was being driven by serious misconceptions on the part of the state’s GOP leaders. "These people," he said, "have a 20-year-old vision of the problems of MPS, and that needs to change."

When Goyke said this, something clicked for me: The takeover plan, I realized, amounts to a rerun of the Milwaukee school board elections of the 1990s, when humdrum local off-year elections suddenly drew the spotlight of national media and the checkbooks of major conservative organizations around the country. After the start of the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program in 1990, and its later expansion to religious schools, whether candidates supported the program and its growth became a major issue for candidates, even though the board itself had no authority over the program at all.

Barbara Miner, in her 2014 book "Lessons from the Heartland" about the last forty years of education and "reform" in Milwaukee, puts it this way: "Before the 1990s, Milwaukee school board elections had been low-key affairs. ... But then Milwaukee became ground zero in the movement toward marketplace-based reforms, in particular publicly funded vouchers for private schools. The school board races became tumultuous and expensive, closely watched by national publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, that realized the national implications of Milwaukee's educational controversies."

I didn’t move to Milwaukee until 1997, so I didn’t personally live through this history. Miner did, as did Christine Sinicki, now a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, but back then a member of the school board. "The stakes had become high and candidates were spending tens of thousands of dollars for a job that paid $8000 a year," she says about that era.

Miner writes that pro-voucher candidates raked in serious money. They "received donations from across the country, including from prominent conservatives such as Walmart heir John Walton and Betsy DeVos of the Michigan-based Amway company."

Sinicki adds, "We were no longer getting candidates who wanted to do right by our children and help improve public education. We were getting candidates who saw MPS as an opportunity to take over public education."

On the other side of these elections was the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the teachers’ union, which took the lead in trying to defend the city’s public schools from outside forces. This didn’t always sit well with those the union supported; Sinicki says she "was not happy" to discover that MTEA was running billboards on her behalf in 1995. "Back then this was considered to be an extravagant expenditure and I didn't want that kind of money coming into my race." In her first election, in 1991, Sinicki says she spent less than $3000—hardly enough to buy a single billboard nowadays.

But that’s it, right there in 1995, the origins of the current attack on Milwaukee’s public schools. It explains almost everything about the way this state’s conservatives talk about the problems within MPS, the teachers’ union, and the "pro-union school board."

The pro-voucher forces didn’t win in 1995, but they did win in 1999. Miner writes, "The new board immediately changed course. It dropped its opposition to the voucher program, endorsed Gov. Thompson’s budget proposals for voucher schools, and backed the neighborhood schools initiative."

That last bit, the neighborhood schools initiative, was both largely a failure (does anyone even remember Spence Korté?) and widely believed to be, based on overheard statements by some board members at the time, an attempt to create schools where white parents would feel safe sending their children. It didn’t help, Miner adds, that this new board also voted "to allow white students to enroll in suburban schools regardless of the effect on desegregation" in Milwaukee’s schools.

Did the privatizers get everything they wanted? No. The public schools still exist, and they still educate all students who enroll, no matter how far behind or how difficult to reach. The board hasn’t voted to cede all authority to the state or the mayor, and never agreed to split MPS into smaller districts. And the board now seriously recognizes the importance of fighting to keep students under the MPS umbrella rather than in some other system. In that way, those outside forces ultimately lost the fight.

Still, reformers made serious progress: The board remained hostile to the union for many years, gutting benefits and seniority perks and pension eligibility. They also made tremendous changes to policy allowing thousands of MPS students to be taught in schools with no union presence at all, which remains a huge contention to this day between the board and the union. And of course, the union has been gutted by the state’s Act 10, so it would have serious trouble winning votes if board elections hadn’t settled back into relative obscurity.

But the state’s Republicans are still partying like it’s 1995. By far the most influential voices when it comes to education in Madison right now belong to pro-voucher lobbyists like Scott Jensen, School Choice Wisconsin, and the (Michigan-based, DeVos-connected) American Federation for Children, who are still peddling the same ideas they had two decades ago.

The legislators who wrote this takeover proposal, Republican state senator Alberta Darling and Republican state representative Dale Kooyenga, are still fighting against the 1995 board, too. Though their original plan released in January refers only to unnamed "entrenched interests," they haven’t been coy about their enemies here.

Darling told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in May that their plan is designed "to work around the Milwaukee School Board, which Darling said has blocked reforms over the years, instead protecting teachers or the status quo." The hyper-conservative MacIver Institute’s news arm actually wrote that "schools would no longer be under the thumb of the school board or teachers’ union" introducing an interview with Kooyenga. Kooyenga didn’t quite use that language, but he did clearly blame the union and "onerous Wisconsin state laws" that the school board – but not the taken-over schools! – must live under and enforce.

It’s clear that these legislators are, as Evan Goyke said, living in the past. Having not gotten everything they wanted 20 years ago here in Milwaukee, they have moved the fight to Madison, where they attack the 1995 version of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and the 1995 version of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. In the process, they’re ignoring reforms underway in the district and, tellingly, ignoring much worse problems in the voucher schools they champion.

Those forces who, as Chris Sinicki says, see "MPS as an opportunity to take over public education," are probably going to win for real this time. And the children of Milwaukee will be the ones who suffer for it.

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.