Sunday, December 18, 2011

Issue #38 December 18, 2011- Madison Prep, Recall and Our Rights

Issue #38- December 18, 2011
In this issue: Madison Prep, Charter Schools, Recall News, Walker's Agenda Isn't Working, (Dis)Respecting the Constitution.

Madison Prep…
The Madison School Board is holding a meeting on December 19th to vote on the Madison Prep proposal.  This planned charter school has stirred emotions here in Madison.  When I first heard about the idea of a school in Madison that would serve the needs of African-American males my reaction was one of "wait and see".  I liked the idea of trying to do something innovative, and fully recognize the issues that our students are facing in terms of their academic achievement.  Every educator that I know has struggled with the challenge of trying to get our students from struggling populations to "succeed" in the classroom.  Several people who I know and respect were proponents of the Madison Prep idea and I wanted to hear more about what the school would offer Madison students.

After months of negotiations and changing proposals I have to say that I can't support the Madison Prep idea as it currently exists.  It's not that I don't see a need for new ideas in educating our students from struggling groups, it has never been clearer that there is a need for us to address this issue.  My major reasons for opposing Madison Prep center around the issues of accountability, workers rights, the needs of all students and conservative attacks on public education.  In each case local issues are mixed in with larger national ones. 
The issue of accountability is the easiest one for me.  Madison Prep's current proposal puts it outside the direct control of the elected school board, while still using public money.  I believe that, if you are using public money, you need to submit to oversight by the people who represent the public.  If you don't want that oversight then raise money and be a private school.  I find it interesting how conservatives who want to limit government spending can support giving away tax dollars to privatized endeavors like this.  They speak about the need to privatize services, but as Alex Molnar from National Education Policy Center- University of Colorado-Boulder says, "These folks talk about a free market, but they couldn't exist without taxpayer dollars."
The issues I have with the Madison Prep proposal and worker's rights are also clear in my mind.  The educator's union in Madison, MTI (Madison Teachers Incorporated), is taking a great amount of criticism for their role in the projected defeat of the Madison Prep proposal.  Madison Prep supporters have been joined by area conservatives in pointing at MTI as one of the primary reasons the MMSD Administration and School Board are against the plan.  To some degree it is true that the collective bargaining agreement between MTI and MMSD is an obstacle to implementing the Madison Prep proposal as it currently stands.  However, it isn't the only reason, nor is the existing contract the most important reason to oppose the plan.

Don't misunderstand my position, this isn't the knee-jerk reaction of a white, unionized public educator.  I value my union and I value the rights of workers.  I do however recognize that there are times where labor has been its own worst enemy.  I also realize that there are times where organized labor needs to compromise for the good of others.  This isn't one of those times. 

The issues that I have with Madison prep go beyond just the proposal itself and get to the heart of the debate over education policy and worker's rights.  Throughout the debate supporters of Madison Prep have clearly grappled with the cost of paying employees a reasonable wage.  The salaries of employees is, by necessity, one of the largest budget items in a school systems budget.  Madison Prep tried every way imaginable to cut costs in this area, while still preserving administrator salaries in many cases.  The comments made were frequently disparaging towards the support staff, custodial workers and other employees.  The idea of recruiting young African-American males and having them work longer hours for lower pay than their, mainly white, counterparts in MMSD is also problematic.  

The concerns I have about the attacks on public education are more philosophical in nature.  I don't question the intent of the majority of supporters of Madison Prep, I hope that they do hold the best interests of the students as their highest priority.  At its heart the debate over Madison Prep is an example of what is wrong with the attitudes towards public education of our entire nation.  What we have is a complicated set of problems that don't have a single straightforward, easy solution.  For example, the achievement gap is made up of many individual stories with all the complications that humans bring to any equation.  Just a quick look in any classroom in Madison will show you the complexity of the problem and the wide range of efforts that are being made to address the dilemma. 

Madison Prep has become a focal point for local conservatives who want to privatize schools.  The original supporters of Madison Prep who have spoken strongly about the need for a new approach to addressing the achievement gap are now giving conservative views as their supporting arguments.  They are (knowingly or unknowingly) giving these anti-public education sentiments a new venue.  The Madison Prep arguments as they currently stand are eerily similar to those of far right activists in other parts of America.  For example, in 1994 Jeb Bush lost the race to be Florida's Governor by 1%.  He only received 4% of the state's African-American votes cast in that election.  He then teamed up with the Urban League, founded Florida's first charter school and won the next election. 

I'm not saying that supporters of Madison Prep are part of this movement.  I know that there has been talk of the connections between different organizations that support Madison Prep and the larger nationwide charter school movement.  I sincerely hope that the local organizers have been able to keep themselves separate from these outside groups that are more about profit and less about education.

There are many parts of the Madison Prep proposal that make sense.  We need to address the needs of students who are struggling.  However, removing resources from the MMSD budget in order to serve a small number of students in a separate institution doesn't make sense to me.  The Madison Prep plan doesn't appear to address the needs of students with disabilities or who have significant psychological needs.  These students will remain in the regular MMSD programs and have fewer resources available to them.  We all can recognize the impact that poverty has on our student's achievement and I fear that Madison Prep will do what most charter schools in other communities have done…skim off the top students and leave the more disadvantaged behind.

Finally, I believe that we can work together to help make our schools places where all children and families can feel welcomed and challenged in positive ways.  It would be so powerful if we could put the same amount of energy into creating positive outcomes for all students.  Madison Prep would only benefit a small number of students and would create more division in an already divided community.  The ideas in the Madison Prep proposal are not revolutionary and could be incorporated into MMSD programming.  I am convinced that, by using our existing public school structure, we can develop ideas to address the issues facing students, families and educators in today's world.     

Privatized Charter Schools- Bad for Public Education, Bad for Kids 
Part of my negative response to the Madison Prep proposal is based on the approach used by supporters and the timing of their plan.  Here in Wisconsin we already have an anti-education governor and a hostile legislature just looking for new ways to undermine public sector unions.  The move is underway to dismantle our public education system and thereby destroy one of the last union strongholds in Wisconsin.  Getting a publicly funded, private charter school in Madison would be a huge achievement for these conservative forces.

As always I must make the comment that I recognize the fact that our public schools are not perfect institutions.  The public educator unions that represent the employees of these districts are flawed as well.  However, I accept these flaws as part of the democratic society that we live in.  We can't settle for just following the status quo practices and policies, but the institutions and mechanisms for change that we have are central to our stability as a nation.  Our democracy is a slow and complicated process, but it is a way for all voices to be heard and all interests to be represented. 

Charter schools as they currently exist undermine this process.  The basic argument put forth by charter school advocates is that they are looking out for the needs of families.  These families' needs are not being met by the existing public school and frequently it is the educators and their unions that are blocking progress.  They argue that educator unions are standing in the way of reforms that would make our educational system more effective and efficient. 
I would argue that the unions are standing in the way of progress, just not the progress that the conservative reformers would have us believe.  Educators and their unions work to represent the needs of the people employed in the public schools, that is true.  However, as an article in Rethinking Schools recently stated, "As education activists, we have to ensure that our unions and professional organizations stand on the side of children and our communities.  It's not enough to narrowly defend teacher rights without understanding that the future of public schools and the future of the teaching profession are directly linked to broader social conditions and to the politics of democratic participation."
The biggest roadblock that educators and their unions represent to reformers is the path to the big money available in education.  The reformers have seized issues like the achievement gap and other problems in education and used them to advance plans to destroy educator unions and to dismantle public education.  
Conservatives call for reforms that will address the needs of the struggling groups, but really don't have their interests in mind. From Rethinking Schools Fall 2011 "As conservatives and self-styled reformers slash support for schools and social services and attack teachers and other public workers, they do not intend to calculate the human cost of those actions- particularly the cost to children."  Conservatives speak about meeting the needs of the poor and giving opportunities for families to choose a school that will meet specific needs.  Arguments are advanced, "That made it easy to adopt a rhetoric with a civil rights cast to it about closing achievement gaps.  The problem is, the rhetoric and reality were completely at odds." (Citizen from Gloucester Massachusetts where debate over funding for private schools was intense)   This becomes crystal clear when you look at the tools that are given to the address the needs of those struggling in our schools, testing and choice.     
I've already spoken to the issues of testing at some length.  In a nutshell, I believe that testing and laws like No Child Left Behind were put in place in large part to create a system that would lead to the destruction of our public schools.  Setting an unreachable goal and using a flawed measurement to define progress towards the goal wouldn't be a good business model and certainly isn't a good design for making our schools better.
The idea of school choice goes hand in hand with testing.  Remember that when schools begin to be identified as "failing" under NCLB one of the penalties is that the school can be forced to become a charter school.  Staff and administration can also be changed and students' families are given the option to move to other schools.  All of these punitive mechanisms are designed to eliminate the public school as the primary option for families. 
Why eliminate public schools?  Two main reasons exist for the attacks on public education.  One is the educator unions are a cornerstone of the public sector unions' power.  Private sector unions have been weakened significantly over the past decades and public sector unions now stand as one of the last large institutions in the way of domination of campaign finance by the corporate community.  The other reason is that there are large profits to be made in education through charter schools.
Corporate interests have tried to tap into this well of profits for years.  We have seen corporate funded curricula introduced in the classrooms of America.  We have also seen educators fight against these blatant attempts to advertise to a captive audience.  The irony is that, as a public institution, we can not promote any religion, but we can promote the religion of consumption.  We have seen publishing companies sell their products and try to influence the purchases of school districts across the United States.  Once again, educators and their unions were vocal in their attempts to focus the curriculum on approved standards and student needs over companies' profits. 
Clearly the potential profits were not being harvested at the rate corporate America would like to see.  One way to get around this problem is to create schools funded by the corporations themselves.  Unfortunately for businesses, a majority of students attend public schools and not private ones.  NCLB and other legislation laid the groundwork for a typical privatization campaign.  By putting financial pressure on schools (cutting budgets and reducing tax revenue) school performance would suffer.  Add to that the perception created by testing that our schools were failing and public support for funding education would be affected.  As schools began to "fail" more budget cuts would kick in and the results would be an ever increasing cycle of declining performance and decreased educator morale.    
NCLB has been an effective tool for conservative reformers.  However, it isn't their only weapon.  Recent years have seen an increased effort to put legislation in effect that allows privately funded schools to dip into the public well of money.  Conservatives argue that they are doing this so that families can afford to send their kids to the school of their choice, but the reality isn't quite as clear.  Some charter schools are legitimate and effective, some are simply money making schemes run exclusively for profit.  Many of the charter schools are supported by foundations with names that are easily recognizable, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation are two such organizations that heavily finance charter schools. 

In addition to the charter school movement, there is a lot of conservative support for on-line education.  Wisconsin is one of several states which has begun to allow public money to be used for on-line education.  On-line education is considered a cheaper way to deliver services to students.  They spend much less on teachers, frequently less than 20% of their budget.  One way to save money is to do what K12, founded by former Education Secretary William Bennett, did…outsource paper grading to a contractor in India.  However, on-line schools don't have any problem spending money on advertising.  For example, IQ Academy in Wisconsin spent almost $425,000 on advertising in 2007-8.  These endeavors have questionable results and are really seen as investment opportunities.  Rupert Murdoch sees the on-line education business as a potentially $500 billion a year sector in the U.S. economy.    

Other legislation that is used by charter school advocates are parent trigger laws.
Under these laws parents can sign a petition to change staff or to make their school a charter school.  These efforts to collect signatures on petitions can originate from many sources, but several have been documented to come from corporate sponsors and the foundations they support.  One opponent to the trigger laws said, "Signing a petition to close a school does not engage parents in a dialogue, visioning or powerful decision making…It's shortsighted and underestimates the power of communities to make systematic change.  Additionally, it runs a serious chance of abuse and racial polarization where intentions behind the petition may not be just about academics."
There is no doubt that we do have serious issues in our public education system that need to be addressed.  However, a corporately funded, business oriented model is not the best way to run our schools.  Educators need to be in the forefront of the reform movement.  We need to emphasize what is good about public education and work to improve what is weak.  We must communicate with our families and our community and build a working relationship that will enable the children we work with to achieve at their highest potential. 
Recall News …
Of course the big news was the announcement that over 500,000 signatures have been collected for the recall of Governor Walker.  Our work isn't done, but it is great news for our movement!  The stories that are shared by signature gatherers are a strange combination of heartwarming and horrifying.  On one hand there are the stories of people going to great lengths to make their voices heard in the political process.  On the other side, the exact opposite, a concerted effort to bully and hassle recall activists.   

Along with the efforts to recall Gov. Walker, there are still petitions circulating for the recalls of several senators and Lt. Governor Kleefisch.  The excellent results that are coming in for the recall of Walker will allow us to put energy into these other recalls as well.  Be sure to look for opportunities to support recall efforts in all parts of Wisconsin. 

Sen. Fitzgerald's recall is progressing.  Don't forget to look for ways to help out with recalls in other areas of the state too.

We must also be wary of the potential for Republican legal efforts to undermine our efforts.  They will be putting a great deal of time, energy and money into trying to restrict the ability of the people to exercise their rights.

Of course there are the usual misleading and blatantly false advertisements.  These, when combined with a continuing effort to intimidate and harass recall workers makes for a poisonous climate here in Wisconsin.

We've all head the arguments from conservatives about the illegitimacy of the recall efforts against Governor Walker.  They continue to say that recall should be reserved for significant legal or ethical violations and that Walker hasn't committed any offense except for calling out unionized labor.  Recent events may make this defense irrelevant. 

Wrong Way For WI…
It seems like piling on at times, but the more information that gets out about the failed policies of Governor Walker the more support we will have in the recall campaigns.  There are still a lot of people in Wisconsin who believe that Governor Walker has done the courageous thing and is doing what is best for Wisconsin and the people who live here.  His policies are failing on all fronts.


A great map that shows Wisconsin's economic woes in stark detail.

Social Services:


Respect the Constitution…
The written constitutions of our country and our state are a source of pride and strength for all of us.  Well, maybe not all of us, it seems like many of our elected representatives here in Wisconsin would like to forget that this document exists.  The attacks on our rights to free speech and our rights to participate in the political process through voting are key cornerstones to our democracy.  By trying to restrict these rights, Republicans in Wisconsin are undermining the very values they claim to respect so much.

The question remains, how much of these efforts to control the political power in Wisconsin actually are originating here?  As I've said before, Wisconsin is a battleground for a larger war being waged on a national scale. 

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