Milwaukee: Who Won and Why

The school board elections garnered national attention as a vote on vouchers. But in the end, the results had more to do with issues of race and power, and poor campaign decisions.

By Bob Peterson

What’s in store for the future of these MPS students?

Long before The Wall Street Journal lauded the Milwaukee school board elections as a victory for vouchers and a defeat for teacher unions, it was clear the races were of national import. The amount of TV and radio advertisements resembled a U.S. Senate election. While final figures weren’t in by press time, spending may have totaled half a million dollars, much of it from outside the city.

But the races’ importance didn’t resonate with Milwaukee voters. Turnout was a dismal 14%, down from 20% in a similarly contentious election four years ago.

“I don’t think the vote was a referendum on vouchers or anything in particular,” said Rev. Rollen Womack. The minister of Progressive Baptist Church, Womack has been active in education issues.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), the country’s largest National Education Association affiliate, mobilized its members and spent considerable resources on the April 6 elections. All five union-endorsed candidates lost, even three incumbents elected previously with union support.

The most significant race was for the one citywide slot. It pitted John Gardner, a white, pro-voucher incumbent championed by the business community, against Theadoll Taylor, a retired African-American principal backed by the teachers union. Gardner won 71% of the vote in the city’s heavily white districts and only 31.5% in the districts with African-American aldermen, but it was enough to carry the election. Even though the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) are 80% students of color, the majority of city voters are white.

Reflecting on that citywide race, Rev. Womack said, “The results just reflect who votes in our city.”

The victors were supported by Mayor John Norquist (an indefatigable voucher supporter who has long sought to control the city’s schools), the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), and the city’s only daily newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The victory gives “pro-mayor forces” a majority of seven on a nine-member board. Several of the new majority are outspoken supporters of private school vouchers and none are publicly critical.

James Hall, an attorney for the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, predicts that the school board victories will embolden free-market, voucher advocates. It’s going to be “open season on a whole array of issues” he warned. He fears that “racial balance and equal opportunity for Milwaukee’s children” will take the most serious hit.

Despite the backdrop of vouchers, it was not the most decisive issue in the campaign. A key factor is that the union-endorsed candidates were perceived as defenders of the status quo in a system that everyone knows must be improved. They were boxed into this corner in part by the media — in particular the unrelenting claims by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and by conservative talk-show hosts that the pro-business slate was a vote for reform. But responsibility also goes to some of the teacher union staff. They turned the union campaign over to a slick public relations firm that focused on school security issues, in the process reinforcing negative images of the city’s schools and foregoing any positive message of reform.

If there is one lesson of national import from the elections, it is this: Teacher unions must become champions of improving our schools, putting forward a comprehensive reform package that can win community support.

Election Issues

On both sides, the campaign was dominated by sound bites and glossy advertisements. “There was no serious discussion about education in the election,” said Rueben Harpole, a widely respected community activist who works at the Helen Bader Foundation and at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The campaigns didn’t speak about how we are going to make sure that our children learn.”

The MMAC organized a “Save Our Schools” Coalition focused on ridiculing a proposal to give all high school students a lap-top computer — an idea put forward by union-supported incumbent Leon Todd. Todd spontaneously laid out his $18 million proposal a few weeks before the elections. Initially it appeared it might work to his advantage. Gardner, for instance, said that he’d support such a proposal only if there was a way “to make sure kids aren’t selling them for cocaine.” Some in the community were shocked that Gardner would stereotype MPS students in such a way, and predicted that the thinly veiled racism behind his comment would hurt his re-election. It didn’t.

MMAC’s telephone pollsters and campaign fliers hammered away at the lap-top issue and it came to dominate all five races. Gardner claimed that Taylor supported the proposal, even though she didn’t. The MMAC made the same false charge against a union-backed candidate on the predominantly white South Side of Milwaukee, even though he publicly opposed the proposal.

“The lap-top issue trumped everything,” said Tammy Johnson of Wisconsin Citizen Action, a group that worked closely with People For the American Way on the campaign. “People viewed it as another example of wasting our tax dollars.”

The irony is that a few years earlier, business leaders had praised a similar proposal by the for-profit Edison Project when it was trying to get a foothold in Milwaukee.

The lap-top issue went beyond money, according to Michael Langyel, a high school teacher and former MTEA president. “When we have a predominantly African-American student population, the lap-top issue quickly becomes a racial issue,” he said. “Not explicitly, but I’m sure many white people were thinking, ‘Why should our tax dollars be spent on giving computers to those [African-American] students?'” Langyel, who actively campaigned against Gardner, thought that Gardner’s original comments about students selling computers for drugs helped foster such sentiments.

The union campaign played into peoples’ negative perceptions of public schools. The union’s voter research had shown discipline was a key concern, and the union decided to highlight school safety issues. It particularly focused on a vote by Gardner against a “zero-tolerance” discipline policy.

Many campaign decisions reportedly were left in the hands of public relations consultants. One glossy MTEA flyer sent to voters had a photo of a gun, a beer bottle, marijuana joint, and baggie of drugs. Another had a police officer by a yellow police line in front of a school. One TV ad financed by the MTEA showed the aftermath of school shootings, including students being removed from a school on a stretcher.

Many teachers were upset by the union’s negative portrayal of schools. Furthermore, the strategy backfired. It fed into the perceptions by whites that the public schools are dominated by drugs and violence, and that the status quo must be changed. In the mind of many voters, the status quo was equivalent to the union, a perception hammered home almost daily by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Paulette Copeland, an African-American teacher who is the elected president of the MTEA, distanced herself from the union campaign. “I wasn’t consulted as far as what we should do,” she said. “I was just informed of what the staff did.”

The campaign also alienated many African-American voters. “The flyers, especially the one with the white policeman standing in front of the school, angered lots of people in the community,” said Larry Harwell, long-time community activist and an aide to Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams (D-Milwaukee). “It basically was saying our children are criminals.” (Both Harwell and Williams, despite their pro-voucher stance, supported the union-backed candidates. “We think there’s a need to balance the union and business forces on the school board,” Harwell said.)

Taylor was particularly hurt by the union’s approach. Her campaign raised about one-third the amount of money as Gardner. It was mostly small contributions of $10 to $50, with only one significant donation, of $3,000, (the maximum allowable in a city-wide race). This was not enough to buy TV commercials promoting a positive image. The TV commercials run by the MTEA were done independently of Taylor’s campaign, “as issue ads.”

Gardner, meanwhile, was able to buy $110,00 in TV ads alone. His individual contributions were mostly in the $100-$1,000 range, including $3,000 from A. O. Smith Co. president, Robert O’Toole; $2,500 from Norquist; $2,200 from mayoral aide David Reimer; and $1,000 each from Wisconsin Gas CEO, Richard Abdoo, and Badger Meter CEO, James Forbes. The list could go on.


Taylor was also hurt by Milwaukee’s racial dynamics. “Race was definitely an issue,” explained Johnson of Wisconsin Action Coalition, who has been involved in many local elections. “No African American has ever won a citywide election in Milwaukee, so Taylor had an uphill battle from the beginning, especially against an incumbent.”

Gardner’s campaign made sure that voters knew Taylor was African-American, and her picture was in a couple of his TV commercials. One commercial appeared to use a darkened image of Taylor. This prompted John Goldstein, President of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, to demand that Gardner “pull the racist television ad.”

Race appeared to also be a factor in the predominantly white northwest district. That race pitted Donald Werra, a white, former police officer, against incumbent Joe Fisher, an African-American retired teacher. Werra campaigned on two issues: increased safety and an end to “forced busing.” In at least two of Werra’s flyers he used photos of Fisher. The last one, distributed just days before the election, asked: “Do you want your kid taught by a convicted felon — Joe Fisher does.” This was in reference to a vote by Fisher two years earlier against the dismissal of a teacher; he argued instead that the teacher should first be put on leave and get psychological help. Rev. Womack, who lives in the district, felt Werra’s decision to use Fisher’s picture had clear racial overtones: “I believe he was trying to play to a specific [white] crowd, to put a black face on a name.” Fisher lost by less than 150 votes.

Interestingly, while race was a factor in the elections, gender may unfold as an issue on the board. Eight of the nine members are male. This stands in sharp contrast to PTA members, PTSO members, and school council parent representatives, who are mostly women.

The defeat of the union candidates went beyond a negative campaign and issues of race, however. The three incumbents were not inspiring candidates to begin with, leaving one education activist to quote the adage: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” To make matters worse, the union-backed incumbents did very little campaigning, apparently confident that the union’s work would keep them in office. They didn’t even show up at candidate forums sponsored by the PTA and other community groups.

“It would have been very helpful if they had done doors or showed up at the forums,” commented Chuck Gobel, former executive director of the Administrators and Supervisors Council. Union-backed incumbent Sandra Small didn’t even win the ward she lives in.

It must also be noted that two of the newly elected board members, African Americans Ken Johnson and Jeff Spence, have children in MPS; they were strong candidates who worked hard.

To its credit, the MTEA mobilized its membership more than in previous elections, and built ties with both other unions and community groups. Tactics included lawn signs, school-based meetings, and a constant flow of literature into people’s homes. According to Gobel, however, the deluge of literature had limited value. “People were so inundated with print material that the material lost its effectiveness,” he said.

Post-Campaign Issues

Two board members have emerged as key players: Gardner, the citywide can-didate, and Bruce Thompson, who was elected as the new Board President. Thompson, who lives on the city’s pre-dominantly white East Side, founded a private Montessori school that subsequently became a city charter school.

Both Gardner and Thompson support vouchers and both view competition and marketplace ideology as the key to school reform. The two spearheaded a successful campaign for admissions requirements at select high schools, with a similar proposal for middle schools due to come before the board in the fall. Both have emphasized individual parent choice, ending “racial quotas,” giving more power to individual schools, and promoting neighborhood schools.

The concern with parent choice, decentralization, and neighborhood schools clearly has worthwhile aspects. But in the process, the two seem to wash their hands of centralized responsibilities for ensuring equitable achievement and winning more resources for the district. Noticeably lacking in their pronouncements is an emphasis on how the central administration has a responsibility to foster academic equity, defend the rights of those too-often marginalized in the system, and ensure that all children are learning. Instead, they chant the mantra of decentralization, individual parent choice, and neighborhood schools.

Their approach stands in contrast to the orientation of the School Board and administration of a decade ago under former Superintendent Robert Peterkin, whose tenure is widely seen as a turning point in MPS. During his two years, there began a districtwide call for higher expectations and standards, with resources and help coming from the central office. There was a push for districtwide standards (K-12 Curriculum Reform), innovative districtwide assessment initiatives such as writing assessments, a new “algebra-for-all” policy, and massive districtwide staff development through the teacher councils. There was also a push for more financial resources for Milwaukee, which spends considerably less per pupil than nearby suburban schools.

Expanding Rights for Whites

In politics, symbolism always counts as much as substance. Interestingly, one of the board’s first actions was expanding the rights of white students. The decision spoke volumes about the board’s orientation.

Wisconsin has a public school choice law, under which students may attend schools in neighboring districts. Milwaukee also has a voluntary desegregation plan, under which African Americans attend suburban schools. In order to maintain the already precarious racial balance in MPS schools, the previous school board had severely limited white participation in the public school choice plan.

The elections coincided with the spring enrollment period for public school choice, and the board was quickly faced with a controversy. White parents in MPS were demanding they be able to leave the system, regardless of how it would affect desegregation efforts.

Mayor Norquist, emboldened by the school board elections, threw down the gauntlet in support of white parents wanting to leave MPS. “End School Race Quotas, Mayor Says,” was the front-page headline of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel two weeks after the election. In his comments, he also berated the “social engineering” of Milwaukee’s 1976 school desegregation court order.

The day following the Mayor’s statement, Gardner and newly elected Joe Dannecker met with “100 angry parents” at a high school on the white south side. According to media reports, Gardner and Dannecker assured the gathering that they would work to remove any restrictions on white parents to transfer to suburban, overwhelmingly white, schools.

Nine days after the mayor put out his original call, and in front of a cheering crowd of white parents, the new school board voted 7-1 to remove most restrictions on whites wishing to attend suburban schools.

“It’s a white power movement,” commented community activist Harwell. “For the last 20 years the black community has been messed over and abused [by one-way busing and enrollment policies in MPS] and then 400 white people want to go to some [white] schools and the board changes its policy right away.”

Options Within the Public Schools

Few argue with the need to expand options and choices for parents and students in MPS. The questions are: For what educational purpose? Whose interests will be served? Will there be an equal concern with equity? Milwaukee’s public elementary schools are already nationally renowned for offering options such as language immersion schools in French, German, and Spanish; Montessori and Waldorf schools; and schools with special focuses on the environment, science and math, and the performing arts.

Mayor Norquist has proposed that “no child should be wait-listed for an MPS school he or she is qualified to attend.” What might he mean by “qualified”? Board President Bruce Thompson has said that “any school with waiting lists we should replicate.” Yet MPS is not the Starship Enterprise, able to replicate by mere voice command. Will Thompson ensure the resources, support, and long-term commitment necessary to build such schools?

In one of its first actions, the new board pledged to expand the number of district-sponsored charter schools. Three of the four schools most interested are those already considered “innovative” in MPS, so it is unclear how much the process will actually expand options.

In the almost exclusive emphasis on parent choice, decentralization, and neighborhood schools, nagging problems have been downplayed. Will the reforms be implemented in a way that enhances equity and quality education for all children, or in a way that further privileges those families already benefiting from the best that MPS has to offer? This is particularly important in Milwaukee, noted for its residential “hypersegregation.” Nor is it a new dilemma. The question of equity has long haunted Milwaukee’s “magnet” and specialty schools (as is true across the country).

Thompson and Gardner’s support for admission standards is a troubling indicator of how the board may approach such issues. Yet the question of admissions may also show that the board is not quite as unified as the mayor and other powerbrokers think. Newly elected Ken Johnson has said he is opposed to entrance requirements. “Schools should be open to and serve all kids,” he told Rethinking Schools. Former superintendent Howard Fuller also told Rethinking Schools that he “has been opposed to entrance requirements for 20 years and remains opposed to them.” It is unclear how much Fuller will use his influence with the new board on such issues. Fuller, a nationally known voucher proponent, gave $1,000 to Gardner’s campaign, and personally campaigned for Spence and Johnson.

A number of people have also raised concerns that the emphasis on individual parent choice is at the expense of focusing on classroom issues. “The majority of board members have no idea of what reform is,” complains MTEA president Copeland. “I am afraid they are content at taking students and schools away from MPS, rather than improving what’s going on in the system. They don’t seem to understand that what’s important is what goes on in the classroom.”

Copeland also said that the new board’s emphases do not adequately address “the conditions of poverty in which most of our students live.” The number of children in MPS eligible for free- or reduced-lunch has skyrocketed from 15% in 1970 to nearly 70% in 1999. To date, the new board has shown little acknowledgment that it is not just the schools but also the community that is in crisis.


The new board’s most dramatic move in the direction of decentralization was its forced resignation of Superintendent Alan Brown and its choice of former Hi-Mount Elementary School principal Spence Korte as his replacement. Korte is a maverick principal who has championed decentralization, which is the main reason the new board likes him.

Korte, however, is also known to speak his mind. During the recent election, when virtually all principals followed then-Superintendent Brown’s order not to take sides, Korte publicly supported Taylor, Gardner’s opponent. Korte commands significant respect among many teachers and administrators and has supported classroom innovation such as whole language.

The media praised the board’s quick action of getting rid of Brown and bringing in Korte. But support in the community was not unanimous. In part, this is because Korte will be the seventh superintendent in 11 years in MPS, and the rapid turnover has unquestionably affected reform. There are also racial implications. As one community activist noted, a white-dominated school board “chose a white man to be a superintendent of a district that is over 80% students of color, with absolutely no community input. This is just not right.”

Ultimately, the issue of decentralization, like many school “governance” issues, can be used for good or ill. Will the decentralization be used to foster privatization? Or will it be used to encourage genuine staff and community empowerment? Even the school councils in Milwaukee — a valuable concept — have a checkered record. In a few schools, the councils have lead to collaboration among parents, staff, and principal. In other schools, the councils barely exist. Overall, in practice they tend to mean “principal-based management.” (One unexplored issue is how the school councils affect the racial and class balance of power in MPS. For instance, parent input on many school councils is dominated by middle class parents, in particular white parents, who do not reflect the vast majority of MPS parents.)

Many teachers are also concerned that the school board might use standardized tests as a key measure of accountability in their decentralized system. This could drive schools to “teach to the test” even more than they do now, thus undermining any serious “decentralization” where it counts most — in teaching and learning. Another concern is that without additional resources, decentralized decision-making could devolve to mostly budget-cutting. In the articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the new board’s direction and concerns, there has not been one reference to fighting for more resources for MPS.

Long-Term Impact

In the long run, the free-market approach may further jeopardize equity and increase racial and class stratification. NAACP attorney Hall listed a number of proposals that would negatively impact racial balance and equal opportunity. These include some policies that are already in process, such as expanding the voucher program and increasing white participation in the public-school choice program. They also include still unresolved controversies, such as the mayor’s proposal to eliminate both inter-district and intra-district busing for purposes of integration, and proposals for more admission requirements within MPS.

“Each proposal in isolation is bad, but when coupled all together they’re particularly disturbing,” Hall said.

How these issues will be resolved depends not just on the new school board, but on whether community organizations, parent groups, and labor unions put forth initiatives that capture the public’s support.

One influential community group, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), has hired a full-time organizer to promote the expansion of a small-class-size initiative known as SAGE. Wisconsin Citizen Action has formed a coalition that is working on a “Covenant with Milwaukee’s Children.” The covenant emphasizes more before- and after-school programs, updating facilities, and lowering class size. Also active in education are a number of other community groups, ranging from the Ministerial Alliance to Milwaukee Catalyst, which is focusing on student discipline policies. None of these groups, however, has yet emphasized the all-important issue of improving the number and quality of teachers coming from the Schools of Education, and providing more time and resources for staff development.

The challenge for these groups is building a powerful constituency, focused on needs of all students, that can influence board policy, particularly through members not irrevocably tied to the mayor and free-market ideology.

Most observers agree that it’s too early to tell if all the new board members will vote as a bloc. “Gardner and Thompson may not be able to maintain their majority on the board on all the issues,” said Rep. Williams. “Those two white-power advocates might just find that some of the other new members on the board are in disagreement.”

Community activist Harpole summed it up this way, “The new board members talk about how they want Milwaukee to have the finest schools in the U.S. It’s nice to want that, but how are they going to make that happen?”

“The whole thing boils down to the teacher in the classroom,” Harpole continued. “How can we lift them up because they are on the firing line and the children will go the way the teachers will go, not the way the school board goes, or the administrators. Will this board be able to motivate the teachers in the classroom? I don’t know. The question becomes — if they can’t, who can?”

Bob Peterson ( is an MPS teacher and an editor of Rethinking Schools.