New State Law Will Lead To The Privatization Of Schools

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Thanks to the just-passed state budget, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele will assume new powers shared by none of his peers in the state. He’ll be in charge of a new school district that is totally unaccountable to the voters but will be paid for by taxpayers.

The new Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), which hands over public schools to Abele for privatization, may be an anomaly in Wisconsin, but it’s part of a growing trend of so-called turnaround districts around the country and another anti-democratic idea spawned by the national right-wing think tanks.

These districts are launched by conservative state legislators and target underfunded urban school districts, where appointed leaders are allowed to convert public schools into privatized charter schools. Not surprisingly, the communities in which these districts are implemented are primarily made up of ethnic and racial minorities. These voters not only lose control of their public assets, but they also lose their right to vote for school leaders as power is concentrated in the hands of elites like Abele.

Loss of Voting Rights

A new report from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national organization fighting for educational justice, calls into question the increasing number of privatized, unaccountable school districts as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The law prohibits states from implementing barriers to voting, especially for minorities, yet in recent years voters have been prevented from selecting their turnaround district leaders in majority-minority communities throughout the country.

“There is a different attack on minority enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act,” states the group’s report, Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers. “Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.

As the report notes, the turnaround district trend is playing out in Milwaukee, as well as in New Orleans; Jersey City, Newark and Paterson, N.J.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Detroit; and in Georgia.

All of these districts have majority-minority student populations. Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has 81% African American and Latino students, while the other takeover districts range from a low of 71% minority student body in Jersey City—where Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who is white, appoints the superintendent and the advisory-only school board—to a high of 96% minority student body in Detroit, where an education authority operates 15 schools.

In all, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools found that in 2014-2015 academic year 101 schools were operated by state districts, 97 of which were converted to privatized charter schools. The more than 47,000 students enrolled in these turnaround schools are 97% African American or Latino.

None of these turnaround districts have delivered on their promises to improve student outcomes, the report found. In fact, education experts from New Orleans told the Shepherdthat after that city’s public schools were converted to charter schools post-Hurricane Katrina, state legislators changed the standards for evaluating student performance so that the new, privatized charter schools could appear to be more successful than the “failing” pre-Katrina public schools.

The report calls into question the ability of minority voters to cast a ballot for their school representatives at the same time Wisconsin and other states have enacted tough Voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise nonwhites, the poor, students and the elderly.

“Over the past twenty years, the civil rights of the 1960s have slowly been eroded through the passage of voter suppression laws, continued disparities in school funding, the criminalization of poverty and the ever-widening inequality that has concentrated wealth in the hands of the few,” the report states. “Communities of color have been the targets of too many of these assaults. Subjecting black and brown communities to experiments in state and private management of schools is just one more.” 

The Milwaukee Experiment

Milwaukee has been ground zero for school privatization schemes. The uber-conservative Bradley Foundation has pushed for vouchers and other anti-public school efforts for decades, with the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce jumping on the bandwagon, even though study after study has shown that Milwaukee’s voucher and charter schools perform no better than MPS schools. They merely funnel taxpayer dollars to religious entities and charter operators.

The latest privatization experiment on Milwaukee’s low-income, minority students is the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, promoted by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and supported by Abele. (Darling and Kooyenga didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.

Darling and Kooyenga’s plan was slipped into the state budget in a catch-all omnibus amendment in the state Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which Darling co-chairs. The lone Milwaukeean and African American JFC member, state Sen. Lena Taylor, a Democrat, offered almost two dozen amendments to make the OSPP more accountable, but each one failed on a party-line vote. The two-year state budget passed with no Democratic support.

Milwaukee Democrats told the Shepherd that Abele, Kooyenga and Darling didn’t consult them on their plan. Darling and Kooyenga held no public hearings devoted to the OSPP in Milwaukee, it wasn’t debated in a legislative committee devoted to education and it won’t be put to a vote in Milwaukee. Abele, who like Gov. Scott Walker is white and lacks a college degree, never held a public hearing on it, either.

Bob Peterson, former head of the Milwaukee teachers’ union and an advocate for public schools, blasted the OSPP as both “racist” and “colonial” because it hands over public assets in a majority-minority city to white elites with a suburban outlook.

“Not only is it in content anti-democratic in the sense that we’re taking over and privatizing essential infrastructure, but the process used to pass it was undemocratic,” Peterson said.

The new state law gives Abele the ability to appoint a commissioner who is solely accountable to him. The public isn’t able to vote for the commissioner. Abele could select up to three schools to take over in the 2016-2017 academic year, but that number jumps to five schools annually in a few years. Abele’s commissioner could convert the schools into charter schools and staff would be fired. The OSPP schools would receive funding from MPS, further diminishing its revenue, but no funding is provided for the commissioner or staffers. Once privatized, returning the schools to MPS would be difficult if not impossible.

The law also gives MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver the same powers to take over schools as Abele. But thus far she hasn’t shown enthusiasm for the plan, at least in public. MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia sent a statement to the Shepherd saying, “We continue to review and analyze the legislation to ensure we understand its complexity and its impact on the students in our community. With some schools already in session and the traditional school year rapidly approaching, our focus is on ensuring that all of our schools are ready to receive students on day one.”

The school operators get first dibs on underused or vacant school properties, but long-vacant school property apparently could be purchased by any interested party, according to the law. Darling has long sought to sell off MPS properties, and now she got her wish.

That’s why Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, calls the OSPP “a land grab. It has nothing to do with student performance. Voucher and charter schools have not moved the needle one bit.”

 A coalition of community groups is asking Abele to not use his new powers to privatize public schools. But Abele doesn’t seem to be listening to their concerns. Abele wouldn’t take questions from the Shepherd on the OSPP, but through his spokesman he said, “What got passed is nowhere near the optimum, but it’s not the finish line either. It’s the starting line, and I am optimistic about the opportunity to have a successful program that puts students first and minimizes any negative fiscal impact on Milwaukee Public Schools, in part by not partnering with private voucher schools.” Obviously Abele chose the words carefully so the door is still wide open to privatizing these schools, just not in partnership with the failed school voucher program.