Milwaukee Community Protests State Takeover Tucked into State Budget without Debate

Milwaukee’s public schools typify the kind of school district now undergoing state takeover in a wave of such imposition of “recovery” or “achievement” districts being rushed through state legislatures. The bills are often fast-tracked without legislative debate and without input from the communities where the takeovers are being imposed.   The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes the provision—log-rolled into Wisconsin’s state’s budget when it passed on July 12, that grants Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, “broad authority to oversee a special district in Milwaukee for the city’s most troubled public schools…. The Program, devised by Republican state lawmakers from the suburbs, is designed to take some of the district’s lowest performing schools from the control of the Milwaukee School Board and put them under the control of Abele and a commissioner he selects, or directly under MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, if she chooses to use that authority.”

But the Milwaukee community is pushing back.  On September 18, the Journal Sentinel describes protesters “walking in” (instead of walking out) at 100 public schools across the city. At one of the rallies, Lukas Wierer, a public school civics teacher, declared: “We live in a representative democracy.  We get to elect our leaders who make decisions for us.  What these actions (legislative takeover) are saying is, ‘You the people of Milwaukee are not capable of choosing your own leaders, that representative democracy is not for you.'”

Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, dissected the history of the state’s intervention in the  Milwaukee School District for Jeff Bryant, who describes the conversation in the newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network: “He (Schroeder) argues that funding what are essentially three separate school systems—the private voucher schools, the privately operated charters, and Milwaukee Public Schools—is driving the district toward financial insolvency. ‘We’re reaching a tipping point.  If more of our schools are chosen for privatization, MPS won’t exist in three to fine years.’  His concerns echo the MPS board president’s warning earlier this year that, according to an independent news outlet, the Walker-devised plan ‘would bankrupt the district by hijacking money and facilities from the district and into private but taxpayer-supported schools.'”

The Milwaukee “walk in” on September 18 was organized by a coalition of school and community organizations: Centro Hispano, Parents for Public Schools, Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin Jobs Now, NAACP Milwaukee Branch, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), and Schools & Communities United.  In their statement, published in the Journal Sentinal, leaders of these organizations declare: “The plan threatens the entire Milwaukee school district—not just the schools identified for takeover.  More than 40% of children in Milwaukee already attend privately run charter or voucher schools.  When taxpayer money is taken away from public schools to fund privately run charter and voucher schools, public school students lose funding and opportunities… The takeover plan offers no new ideas or resources to help children succeed.  Milwaukee already has 25 years of experience with a failed voucher school program…. The takeover schools will leave students without critical services… School takeovers will eliminate good jobs in our city—particularly for African-Americans and Latinos…. Most significantly, the school takeover plan eliminates democratic local control, disenfranchises black and Latino communities, and punishes mostly students of color.”

This blog recently reported on the state takeovers that have been quite recently imposed without the will of local voters in Nashville and Memphis (Tennessee), Detroit (Michigan), Little Rock (Arkansas), Youngstown (Ohio); proposed in New York State; and up for state referendum in Georgia.  These add to the school districts controlled by their states for much longer—a decade in New Orleans (Louisiana) and two decades in Newark (New Jersey).

This blog also very recently covered a report released in August by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which describes the conditions that typically define the school districts being seized for takeover by their states: “This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority.  Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”

Ohio Fast-Tracks Emergency Manager for Youngstown Schools and More Districts in Future

The headline on Doug Livingston’s piece in the Akron Beacon Journal, says it all: Ohio Lawmakers Scrap Elected School Boards and Union Contracts, Usher In Private Control After Barring Opposition Testimony.

Livingston explains: “The bill began innocuously in the House as an effort to help communities turn schools into comprehensive learning centers for the neighborhood. The bill passed from the House to the Senate a month ago with an overwhelming 92-6 vote.” The bill was originally designed to encourage the creation of what are in most states called “community schools,” but in Ohio (which calls all charter schools “community schools,”) such schools are called “community learning centers” with wrap around community services provided for families right in the school building—enhancements like health clinics, dental clinics, child care programs.  Here is the descriptive language in the bill’s summary as penned by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission—before the bill was amended: “Authorizes school districts and community schools to transition any of their school buildings into a community learning center to participate in a coordinated, community-based effort with community partners to provide comprehensive educational, developmental, family, and health services to students, families, and community members.”

Then last Wednesday, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.  There was never a full public hearing on the amended bill.

Livingston reports that Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, had arrived in the Senate committee room to testify in favor of the bill promoting community learning centers.  When she was informed that Lehner would be amending the bill under discussion with a plan to take over Youngstown’s public schools, Cropper tried to address that issue in her testimony, but was informed that she could not speak to the amendment, which had not yet been offered. After Cropper sat down, the amendment was introduced, and, according to Livingston, “four men in line behind her who had traveled from Youngstown stepped up to give favorable testimony”—Youngstown State University president Jim Tressell; Bishop George Murry of the Youngstown Diocese; Thomas Humphries president of the Chamber of Commerce; and the current superintendent, Connie Hathorn, the man who has failed to improve test scores in the district and who has agreed to leave for a new job in Arkansas at month’s end.

The new plan will affect Youngstown now, but in the future it will affect any school district that receives an “F” rating for three consecutive years.  Once a district has three annual ratings of “F”, it can, according to Livingston, “be taken over by a state academic distress commission, which consists of three members appointed by the state superintendent, another by the local mayor, and a teacher selected by the local school board president.  The commission then hires a CEO, who doesn’t have to be an educator but must have ‘high-level management experience.’  The CEO is paid up to $150,000 directly by the Ohio Department of Education.  The academic distress commission also can hire an ‘independent entity’—possibly a for-profit company—to oversee and promote local charter schools.  The state’s private voucher program also opens up to any student who would otherwise attend the academically distressed school district, regardless of how well the nearest school building in that system performs.  Schools can get out of academic distress if they earn a C grade on the report card and no more Fs in the next two years. Though overall grades aren’t out yet, 59 percent of all grades given last year to Ohio’s eight largest and poorest urban school districts were Fs.”

Why Youngstown first?  Livingston explains: “The discussion centered on Youngstown, which has been guided by an academic distress commission since 2010… Lorain, the other Ohio school district in academic distress, must perform poorly another  two years before it falls under the new provision…. Youngstown has the highest poverty rate among Ohio’s 10 major cities and it is eighth in the nation for poverty among more than 550 ranked cities.”

Stephen Dyer, former Ohio House member and former reporter for the Beacon Journal, explains exactly how this is likely to play out—first in Youngstown and then across Ohio’s urban districts that include Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Lorain, Toledo and Akron: “(H)ere’s the thing. Only when the district gets an overall C grade on the state report card will the district even start to get out of this academic distress thing.  So, essentially, we are creating a city-wide, more or less permanent dictatorship in Youngstown.  Why do I say this is permanent?  Because all the grades on the state report card are based on test scores, which are nearly perfectly correlated with a district’s poverty rate.  So Youngstown, with its nearly 100% poverty rate has almost zero chance of ever getting out from under this dictator’s thumb.  We’ve seen how dreadful this situation has worked in Michigan.”

So, how have Michigan’s school district emergency managers worked out?  Here are two examples.  In Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, the governor appointed emergency managers in 2012.  In Muskegon Heights, the emergency manager hired Mosaica Schools, a for-profit Charter Management Organization to run the district.  In April 2014, Mosaica and Muskegon Heights’s emergency manager agreed to terminate the contract because the company, a for-profit corporation, lost money instead of turning a profit. Then just this month, Highland Park’s emergency manager reached an agreement to shorten by a year what had been a five-year contract with the Leona Group, also a for-profit Charter Management Organization.  The Leona Group closed Highland Park’s  only high school at the end of the current school year, and has agreed to conclude its contract with Highland Park after the upcoming school year and for a far lower fee.  It was to have been paid $780,000 per year, and will collect only $150,000 for the school year just ended.

People in Youngstown were stunned by the news of the rushed and secret state legislation to take over their schools.  School board president Brenda Kimble is quoted in the Youngstown Vindicator: “We’re going to band together as a community.  We’re not going to just let this happen. They didn’t consult anybody in the city, any of the elected officials including, as far as I know, any of city council or the unions.”

No Democrat in either chamber of Ohio’s legislature voted for the bill. Youngstown’s legislative representatives all voted against the bill.  State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan has posted a statement on her website: “Fast-tracking a takeover of Youngstown City Schools prevents our community from coming together in a constructive way to chart a course for our children to succeed.  Frustration in the Mahoning Valley cannot and should not be replaced by what could amount to a power grab from Columbus outsiders… From the first day I took office, I expressed concerns that Columbus would try to shut down Youngstown schools and centralize power with an unaccountable and less transparent governing structure that moves children to failing, for-profit charter schools.  I took the governor at his word that this would not be the case, but here we are today faced with what appears to be exactly that.”

Will We Permit the Theft of Our Democracy?

This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work.  As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.

Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions.  The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.

My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district.  The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools.  The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union.  Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”

Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit.  The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door.  Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening.  In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission.  In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.

And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education.  We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes.  Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,

Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance.  Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization.  In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:

“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue.  They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change.  In short, they are a democratic forum.  They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively…  They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account…  There is an arrogance to unchecked power.  There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes…  No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)

Education Faculty at Eastern Michigan University Stands Up to Governor Snyder

In her Washington Post column today, Valerie Strauss reports on a protest by faculty in the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, which is a partner with Governor Rick Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA).  The EAA is the body through which the state takes over schools whose standardized tests are in the bottom five percent across the state.  These are the same schools that qualify to be turned around under the federal School Improvement Grants program, whose prescribed turnarounds include school closure and privatization.

According to Strauss, “Eastern Michigan University is the only university in the state that signed on to partner with the Education Achievement Authority.” Faculty in the College of Eduacation are protesting, arguing “that they had no input in the way the Education Achievement Authority is run and that they oppose the way EEA is being operated.”

In a letter reprinted by Strauss, the education faculty  request that the university’s participation in the Education Achievement Authority “be severed immediately.”  “We find the undermining of democratic processes represented in the creation of a district outside the purview of public decision-making and oversight to be in direct conflict with this unviersity’s mission and our legacy as a champion of public education.”

Eastern Michigan University faculty are protesting “that the EAA’s governance is secretive; that student and teacher turnover is excessive; that the EAA relies on young and inexperienced teachers, including many from Teach for America; that many teachers taught outside the areas for which they had certification.”

School districts where the College of Education typically places student teachers have begun protesting the university’s participation in the EAA partnership by refusing to place student teachers from EMU in their classrooms.  In their letter, the faculty members state: “From the start, EMU faculty were not invited to give our input into such an arrangement or asked for our expertise as the EAA was established.”

Governor Rick Snyder’s school reform programs include not only the EAA partnership but also the appointment of emergency fiscal managers for municipalities like Detroit and for school districts.  The emergency managers are making executive decisions without public oversight to abrogate contracts with teachers’ unions and to turn entire districts over to large national charter management organizations.

Governor Rick Snyder’s brand of school reform emphasizes efficiency over democratic oversight.  Michigan is the epicenter of such top-down reforms.

Congressional Dithering and No Child Left Behind Waivers Subvert Democratic Checks and Balances

In this morning’s New York Times, Robert Reich describes a serious consequence of gridlock in Congress: the loss of democracy.  “Political decision making has moved to peripheral public entities, where power is exercised less transparently and accountability to voters is less direct.”  Reich explains the consequences for the management of the economy, for the balance of power with the Supreme Court, for our nation’s capacity to slow climate change, and for the balance among state and federal responsibilities.

Democracy is also being abrogated in another policy area less reported these days: public education.  And while this month the most obvious examples of threats to democratic governance of the public schools are at the local level—the power of emergency managers appointed by Michigan’s governor to privatize whole school districts, to override labor contracts, and even to close school districts while elected school boards stand by to watch—there are also very serious issues of federal overreach by the U.S. Department of Education at this time when Congress cannot agree to act.

Although Congress is supposed to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) every five years, the 2002 version, called No Child Left Behind, is now six years overdue to be rewritten.  Still Congress dithers.  No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has now shaped federal public education policy for eleven years.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education have dealt with Congress’s inability to build consensus around an ESEA reauthorization by managing federal education policy administratively, granting waivers to states from onerous consequences of NCLB if the states submit proposals that conform to priorities set by the Department.  The waivers are being granted without any oversight by Congress.

No Child Left Behind waivers permit states to escape the unworkable and utopian Adequate Yearly Progress requirement that schools post ever higher annual test scores or be declared “failing.”  The waivers permit states to stop setting aside federal Title I money for transportation to support school choice by which students in so-called “failing” schools can move to other schools.  And the waivers permit states to get rid of the controversial Supplemental Education Services, a tutoring program that has diverted federal funds away from in-school Title I programming to outside, after-school tutoring programs that have too often profited unscrupulous providers.

While there is now widespread agreement that Adequate Yearly Progress, school transfers, and Supplemental Education Services harmed public schools, there is growing concern about the administrative—not democratic—way the Department of Education has sought to provide relief.  To qualify for waivers, states’ applications had to include adoption of one of two versions of the Common Core Standards, including new and controversial standardized tests like those whose scores New York reported earlier this week.  To qualify for waivers states have also had to agree to incorporate students’ standardized test scores in the evaluation of teachers.  These are Departmental—not Congressional—priorities.

The latest flap about the side-stepping of democracy through the NCLB waivers happened just this month.  After the Department of Education rejected California’s application for a waiver last year because California’s proposal did not meet the Department’s requirements for evaluating teachers, eight local California school districts including very large districts like Los Angeles, Fresno, and Long Beach, did an end run around their state department of education to apply for their own waiver as a consortium of school districts.  Writing for Education Week, Michele McNeil reported that on August 6,  the consortium of districts received a one-year NCLB waiver, which can be renewed on the condition that they fully implement the school-rating system and teacher-evaluation plans the eight districts proposed.

How does the federal granting of a NCLB waiver to a group of school districts interfere with democracy?  The issue is constitutional.  State constitutions, not the U.S. Constitution, grant the authority for the establishment and regulation of local school districts.  According to  McNeil, “…this waiver is unprecedented for its scope, and for how it changes the dynamic between districts, the state, and the federal government.”

In a follow-up commentary, McNeil wonders, for example, about a new oversight panel the eight California districts created to police themselves: “Will the new ‘oversight’ panel provide enough oversight… as a state would provide in the traditional accountability relationship?  …the oversight panel’s authority (such as it is) is derived from a really squishy place.  This new panel’s power is not rooted in law, or state board regulations, but in a waiver agreement between the feds and these districts.”

You may wonder: Isn’t this too arcane and too far “out in the policy weeds” for most of us to care about it?  That’s just the problem.  While as individuals we are unlikely to be able to track and impact policy at this level, our democracy was set up with three branches of government to balance and check each other. When Congress (the legislative branch) fails to make the laws (what our civics classes taught us Congress is supposed to do), when it cannot reach any sort of compromise to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there is no check on what is today the overreach of the executive branch, in this case represented by the U.S. Department of Education.

To its credit, the Department of Education has made an effort to alleviate the damage of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The problem is that the Department’s method of trying to fix NCLB without adequate Congressional oversight increasingly interferes with the democratic process.  Democratic governance of public education is essential for ensuring that  families can secure the education to which their children have a right.