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Working In These Times

Thursday, Feb 4, 2010, 3:21 pm

As Milwaukee’s Economy Fails, How Can Public Schools Succeed?

BY Roger Bybee

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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who supports increased privatization of the Milwaukee Public System, speaks at a news conference in 2007.   (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Milwaukee's public schools are in trouble: less than half of students who begin high school actually graduate.

But will a major dose of free-market fundamentalism applied to Milwaukee's school system overcome the effects of the same medicine that has devastated Mlilwaukee's economy?

Milwaukee's 90,000-student system has been under a sustained neoliberal bombardment. The diversion of public funding to private voucher schools has combined with an attack on the tradition of democratic decisionmaking to favor a top-down corporate model.

The key bombardiers have been the Democratic mayor and governor and corporate leaders who seek to establish mayoral control over key school district decisions and continue privatization of school functions through the voucher schools, which now contain over 20,000 students.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is the leading Democratic candidate to replace Doyle next year (when he retires), have been teaming up to push the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools that would strip the elected School Board of key powers.

But these Democrats have been cheered on by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, which ardently backs the plan, as it does other efforts to weaken direct decisionmaking by the public. U.S. Education Secretary Arne ("Katrina is the best thing to happen to New Orleans' public schools") Duncan, who supported the mayoral takeover in Chicago before heading to Washington, is also seen as a strong supporter.


However, the mayoral takeover in Milwaukee now remains firmly bottled up in the state legislature by African-American legislators and progressive white allies. Their main argument: the proposed takeover would effectively disenfranchise a city that now has a majority of African-American and Latino residents. 

For example, School Board President Dr. Michael Bonds, an education professor, flatly labels the proposal "racist." Bonds adds: "People have been on the sidelines for years while white school board presidents just helped run the district down."

A broad array of groups, including the NAACP, Service Employees International Union, Milwaukee 9 to 5, and the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association are aligned with Bonds against the takeover.


MTEA President Mike Langyel, a long-time progressive, has declared that

We need the community’s engagement in and support for our schools. A mayoral takeover is the wrong direction. It would silence the voice of the community by taking away the right of citizens to vote for their school board representatives.

Langyel asserts that the schools' shortage of resources, coming at the same time it faces increasing challenges from growing poverty, is not addressed by the takeover plan. His argument has resonated with the public, as polling shows that the mayoral takeover is opposed by 57% of area residents. (Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has not only editorialized in support of the takeover, but exaggerated support for the takeover and severely downplayed the polling results in its news stories.)

Viewed strictly on a political basis, Barrett's increasingly futile effort would seem to be undermining his voting base for his gubernatorial race. But in an era when campaign contributors have assumed out-sized importance relative to voters, Barrett's drive for mayoral control appears to be adding to his support among Milwaukee's corporate leaders, as has his support for voucher schools and his opposition to mandatory paid sick leave for all workers in the city.


The Milwaukee Public Schools have been drained of resources in order to set up a network of private "voucher" schools that are taxpayer funded, but not obligated to either take all student applicants or subject their students to the same achievement tests.

The voucher school idea has been extensively promoted by the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, the nation's largest right-wing foundation, which has aggressively pushed an agenda of school privatization, ending welfare "dependency" and, many progressives would argue, a more sophisticated form of white supremacy through its nearly $1 million support for the notorious book, The Bell Curve.

An audit of the schools by McKinsey and Co. consultants  found "that MPS’s biggest financial challenges are caused by declining enrollments due to the voucher program and the high cost of healthcare benefits (healthcare costs in southeast Wisconsin are much higher than the national average)—challenges that are not controlled by the MPS board," as the local Shepherd Express reported.

Meanwhile, the chronically under-funded public schools are forced to stagger along with too many kids per class. At the same time, since the voucher schools have been freed of any requirement to accept physically-disabled or emotionally troubled students, fully 20% of public school students are defined as having "special needs." With poverty growing, a decreasing proportion of students remain in the same school for the entire year.


Although Milwaukee schools face undeniable problems, a vital question has been largely unasked in the takeover rebate: How can the school district possibly succeed in a city where corporations have destroyed so many family-supporting jobs and social supports are failing so miserably? In short, if the economy is failing the city, isn't it unavoidable that the schools fail as well?

Well before the Great Recession began destroying jobs on a massive scale, Milwaukee was hammered by the loss of 65% of its industrial jobs from 1977 to 2002. The city sank from 91,400 factory jobs to 34,900 during that period, and industrial suburbs suffered a 42% drop in manufacturing jobs over the same time span, from 62,000 to 31, 600 in 2002, according to Marc Levine of the Center for Economic Development. 

Many of Milwaukee's most prominent local employers—Master Lock, Allen-Bradley (later Rockwell), Briggs & Stratton, AO Smith (later Tower Automotive), and Johnson Controls—relocated significant sections of their production to low-wage Mexican plans.

Efforts to replace manufacturing jobs with service jobs in tourism and recreation related industries have essentially been an expensive failure.

"Despite over $1 billion in tourism, sports, and entertainment investments since the late 1990's, employment in hotels in the city of Milwaukee was 25 percent lower than it was ten years earlier," Levine states. 

Currently, Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the nation, ranking as 11th poorest in 2008 among major U.S. cities. Based on the most recent U.S. Census figures, 23.4% of Milwaukeeans lived in poverty, while nearly one in three children were considered poor.


Until Milwaukee addresses its failing economy and its gross inequities magnified by school-funding shortages, the neoliberal calls for a more corporatized model will not lift up Milwaukee's failing school system.

Free-market fundamentalism destroyed Milwaukee's productive economic base; it offers no cure for the public schools.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

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