One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward

Year in Review

Snowstorms closed Milwaukee public schools only one day this year. Riots closed some Los Angeles schools for two. If Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist had his way, he’d probably close public schools forever. Norquist’s call for “scrapping public education” might have been written off as eccentric dribble if it wasn’t set in the broader context of rapidly deteriorating conditions in our cities and rapidly accelerating efforts to privatize education.

Most urban school systems face budget cuts that gut reform efforts, economic recession that devastates families and neighborhoods, and mounting violence that scars the lives of our children and the morale of our educators. While attention in Milwaukee focused on Superintendent Howard Fuller’s various reform proposals, state and national developments also left an enduring impact both here and around the country.

Little Help from Feds

On the national level, there is little reason for optimism. Key leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties are committed to obscenely high levels of military spending — at the expense of children and devastated urban areas. Over the past decade, the US military budget increased by $579 billion, while federal funding to the states and cities decreased by $78 billion.

The Bush administration’s reluctance to fund education is matched by its eagerness to put corporate America in charge of educational reform. The one part of Bush’s America 2000 education plan that seemed to catch hold was the New American Schools Development Corporation, a group of corporate officials who will choose “model” schools to fund. Their imminent choices will undoubtedly encourage designs that complement business interests in schools.

An even more naked example of the growing influence of business in schools is the growth of Channel One, broadcast by Whittle Communications (see story p. 12). Channel One offers schools tens of thousands of dollars worth of television and video equipment if they plug their students into a daily dose of news and commercials exclusively broadcast by Whittle. Whittle even intends to establish a national chain of for-profit schools.

In the midst of growing business influence, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, President Bush, and other leaders continued to push a conservative educational agenda including privatization through school “choice,” national standards with national testing, and a refined tracking system under the guise of “school to work” reforms. Popular and Congressional opposition has stalled — but not stopped — some of these programs at the federal level. At the same time, a number of states are moving ahead on these conservative “reforms.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision this winter to uphold the constitutionality of the private school choice legislation is a prime example, as is the likely California referendum this fall on a private school voucher plan.

Multicultural Debate

National attention also focused on the ongoing debate about multiculturalism. Conservative attacks continued, bolstered by the appointment of Diane Ravitch as Assistant Secretary of Education. But proponents of multicultural and anti-racist education are making inroads. Multicultural awareness and programs increased significantly in many school districts, encouraged by school officials, professional organizations, and book publishers.

The nationwide grassroots response to the Columbus Quincentennial is another indication that issues of culture and race are not being completely defined by the national media or conservatives. While the media is still far from popularizing a Native American perspective on the Quincentennial, the debate has shifted as increasing numbers of people learn about the oppression of Native Americans and their resistance to the European colonization of the Americas. The sale of over 150,000 copies of Rethinking Columbus, some in quantities of over 1,000 to several school districts, is a hopeful sign.

The Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers, and the Los Angeles rebellion provide a dramatic sense of urgency to the need to implant multicultural and anti-racist education in our schools. The tragedy in Los Angeles, despite the devastation suffered by that city, can lead to some good. There is now more room for progressives to force politicians to make the urban crisis a key focus of this year’s presidential and Congressional races. Unfortunately, based on the performance of major candidates to date, it is doubtful that anything short of several more rebellions or a massive social movement would move these politicians beyond politically-motivated lip-service to our cities’ needs.

Another positive development is the increased awareness of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the schools. Anita Hill’s testimony focused the attention of the entire nation, educators included, on the issue of sexual harassment, while a report by the American Association of University Women documented the deep gender bias within our schools. Whether districts act on these matters remains to be seen.

Both the Anita Hill testimony and the Rodney King beating highlighted sexual and racial discrimination in our society — discrimination which severely affects our schools. Our schools are also prey to the deepening class divisions within America. A recent study reported in the NewYorkTimes shows that the top 1% of the population controls as much wealth in the U.S. as the bottom 90%. Such inequality translates into widespread desperation, as evidenced by the 5,000 people who gathered to apply for a few hundred jobs at a new Hilton Hotel in Chicago, or the fact that 20% of all children (44% of African-American children) live in poverty. Clearly, advocates of school reform must contend with the growing disparities of wealth and power in our society.

State Level Reform

At the state level, bleak news also dominates. In many states the most prominent educational “reform” programs are vocational tracking initiatives, state-wide testing, and private vouchers. In addition, state governments are besieged by budget crises and pass them on to local school districts in the form of reduced state aid. Luckily, there is a smattering of enlightened leadership in some states. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Indiana continue to finance reforms that significantly reduce class size. Vermont and Connecticut are experimenting with performance-based assessment.

New York State has promoted, despite sharp criticism, a substantive effort at implementing multicultural curricula.

At a time when cuts in federal funding for education and other social services have put strains on state and local tax bases, state tax policy itself has also had damaging effects on schools. During the last two decades, many state governments have mimicked the changes in federal tax policy, and have forced the poor and middle class to pay larger shares of their income in taxes than the wealthy. In addition, corporate taxes have been cut. As a result, state governments are increasingly hard pressed to provide needed social services. In Wisconsin, for example, tax changes in favor of wealthier individuals will cost the state an estimated $874 million in the 1991-1993 biennium, according State School Superintendent Herbert Grover. And while Wisconsin businesses provided at least 30% of state revenues in 1960 through corporate income and property taxes, by 1990 the businesses’ share had dropped to 19%.

Attackson Public Education

With conservatives dominating the federal and Wisconsin government, localities must do what they can while continuing to fight to change state and national priorities. In Milwaukee, local efforts have been mired in political infighting.

Some public officials and private school advocates have used the urban crisis as a spring board to promote business “solutions” for our schools’ problems. In January, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist called for “scrapping public education” and advocated the privatization of schools. In April, Norquist called for public funding of parochial schools, stating that the reason one near south side public school was “good” was because three parochial schools were also in the neighborhood.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee and Milwaukee Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, have promoted business management techniques as solutions to our schools’ problems. They have done this through conferences and seminars, as well as “loaning” executives to the Milwaukee Public Schools to help (and influence) the school administration. The conservative Bradley Foundation has given over $70,000 to support the “loaned” executive program. Some businessmen have promised to finance and run candidates in next spring’s school board elections.

Within the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust corporate leaders have consolidated their control by changing their by-laws to exclude from their executive committee representatives from the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and the Administrators and Supervisors Council.

These attempts at gaining influence appear to be working. The administration’s 1992-93 proposed budget, which was written by corporate executives and non-educators, is an austerity budget at a time when schools need more and not less. It is also riddled with problems because those most knowledgeable about schools were not adequately involved in its creation.

In addition, Milwaukee Superintendent Howard Fuller proposed setting up private charter schools that would be outside the bounds of collectively bargained labor contracts. His draft Facilities Plan recommends that the school board contract out for thousands of seats with private agencies.

Finally, the school board has proposed in negotiations with the teacher’s union that there be no limit to contracting out to private agencies or companies. While the future of these proposals are uncertain, many employees see them as part of a plan to break their unions.

Union Busting?

This fear of union busting, while discounted by Fuller, took on added significance after Fuller sent out a letter to all parents of MPS students supporting the administration’s position in contract bargaining. Many teachers felt that the letter, written by the public relations firm of David Meissner, was an attempt to scape-goat teachers and public employee unions as the main reason that school reform can not take place. The letter, for example, stated that teachers don’t work eight hours a day, infuriating the many teachers who work much more than that.

Two weeks after the letter, Fuller called on all employees to accept a wage freeze. He said this was necessary to hold property taxes down now and to make more likely the passage of a facilities referendum next spring. Many employees saw this move as a way to shift the blame for a potential tax increase to teachers.

The proposal for a wage freeze was particularly disheartening for those employees at the low end of the wage scale — teaching assistants, paraprofessionals, food service workers, and secretaries. Many of these people are women who are sole supporters of their families and who are living under the poverty level while working for the public schools. In fact, many of their children are eligible for free lunch from the very schools they work for.

The average annual salary of a teaching assistant who works 30 hours per week (the maximum) is $7,900. For a family of three (head of household and two children) the federal poverty level is $11,570.

Fuller’s proposed wage freeze would actually be a wage cut, given the 3.1% increase in the consumer price index and the MPS proposal that staff pay for 5 to 10% of their health insurance costs.

The administration first made such a health insurance proposal almost two years ago to its lowest paid employees, the teaching assistants. Because of the board’s insistence that the assistants pick up 5% of health insurance premiums, some 1,800 assistants have worked over 18 months without a contract. The actual amount of money involved — about $70,000 for the two-year contract — is less than a third the amount that George and Susan Mitchell will be paid in one year of consulting for MPS.

Another less publicized threat to quality public education comes in the form of right-wing religious fanaticism. This past year, a fundamentalist religious radio station mobilized people to oppose the recommendations of a task force on support services for gay and lesbian students, successfully pressing the board to gut the recommendations. The possibility exists that in the coming year, when issues such as AIDS and condom availability are discussed, these same forces will oppose progressive policies on these issues.

Positive Developments

Despite these factors, many positive developments occurred within MPS this year. Of these, continued progress of the K-12 Curriculum reform effort is the most significant. Last summer parents, teachers, and administrators gathered for three weeks in a precedent-setting project that developed 10 Learning and Teaching Goals for MPS (see Rethinking Schools, Vol. 6, no. 1). The goals, adopted formally by the school board in the fall, were a huge improvement over the previously proposed and rejected outcome-based education initiative.

The K-12 Curriculum reform has progressed due to significant work by many teachers and enlightened leadership by some central administrators. The effort has provided openings for school-based innovations in teaching and assessment. It has encouraged collaboration between teachers inside schools and between schools. The staff development process and the cross-staff communication shaped by the K-12 reform effort were called “exemplary” in the Department of Public Instruction’s audit of MPS this past January.

Unfortunately, the K-12 process has not developed as strongly as it might have.

Structural problems including little planning time and overcrowded classes mitigate against experimentation and collaboration. Some view the K-12 reform only as the “school effectiveness” process, rather than the widespread grassroots reform efforts that have characterized the initiative from the beginning. And the continued reliance on multiple-choice standardized tests as the principal form of evaluation discourages integration of assessment and instruction which is key to any real curricular reform.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all was over-work. Because those teachers most involved in the reform effort are the same teachers most committed to extensive and innovative preparation for their own classrooms, the most pressing problem facing the reform effort has been the exhaustion of its supporters. Despite these difficulties, however, the effort remains key to reforming MPS and top priority should be given to it in the coming year.

The K-12 Curriculum reform sparked an increased emphasis on multicultural issues throughout the district. The staffs of many schools chose to focus on teaching and learning goal #1 which states that “Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through participation in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.” Centralized support was given through staff development courses and limited amounts of multicultural materials provided to each school.

Teacher collaboration has been systematized the past four years through working councils of teachers in a variety of curricular areas, including whole language, multiculturalism, and early childhood education. This year saw the creation of a humanities council to promote reforms in high school social studies and English curricula, and a peer mediation council of teachers working with peer mediation programs.

The African-American immersion school, renamed Dr. Martin Luther King School, had a good first year. In mid-year the school board established a task force to investigate the possibility of setting up a “Native American immersion school.” These initiatives have great potential for promoting ethnic-centered teaching and curricula.

Some progress has also been made on assessment. Thanks to several years of work by teachers and administrators, the 3rd grade multiple choice test on standard English was replaced with a 4th grade writing assessment that more accurately measures what children can do. The Assessment Task Force has recommended to the school board that other superfluous and harmful standardized tests be eliminated, including the 2nd grade Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, some fifth grade tests, and a grammar component of the high school competency tests. Unfortunately, what is taken away by thoughtful people in Milwaukee might be quickly replaced with a battery of tests mandated by the state, starting in 1993 with a multiple-choice tests produced by ACT for the 8th and 10th grades, and in coming years perhaps at the 4th grade level in several curricular areas.


The $324 million Facilities Plan announced this winter by Fuller was developed by a task force of teachers, parents, administrators, and consultants. It is a positive step toward relieving problems of overcrowding and inequity. Previous plans had called for increased space, but lacked the leadership necessary for getting them approved. Fuller has personally stepped in to keep the current effort moving. Unfortunately, the political leadership on this issue does not extend to the Mayor’s office.

Norquist has resisted supporting a referendum, and has dragged his feet on support for state legislation that would permit raising $35 million in local taxes to build two badly needed schools.

To actually meet all the space needs of Milwaukee’s children, over $1 billion would have to be spent — less than half the cost of a single B2 bomber, but three times the amount that Fuller recommended. Fuller has also suggested the board endorse a plan to contract out 258 classrooms (over 6000 seats) to private, community-based organizations. Before the board adopts that aspect of the plan, a great deal needs to be determined about building standards of such sites, equity issues, certification, wage scales, and accountability. Some people have even proposed that the contracting out provision include religious schools.

The board should also ensure that the facility plan incorporate the concept of schools as community centers. In many neighborhoods, schools remain one of the few remaining functioning institutions.

They should be more fully utilized as recreational, cultural, and educational centers.

Problems Loom in MPS

Unfortunately big problems remain in MPS. To name just a few: class size, building leadership, insufficient number of teachers of color, and bureaucracy.

  • Class size. The proposed budget only exacerbates the problem of overcrowded classrooms. For example, the administration is recommending that some exceptional education classes be enrolled up to capacity (limits are set by the state) at the beginning of the school year. This ensures over-crowded classes later in the year as new students are placed in exceptional education. Regular education class size would also increase under the proposed budget. By strictly adhering to a formula of 30 students to one teacher, the administration will increase class size by an average of 1.6 students at the elementary level, according to an initial analysis done by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. By having a set amount of money “follow” each student, schools are given a financial incentive to make sure each class is filled to its maximum.
  • Violence and discipline. Fuller’s tough discipline policy, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in student suspensions, has been met with mixed reactions from the community. As the new policy is fully implemented next year, MPS will need not only to provide well-disciplined schools, but also to determine whether it is addressing the problems that lead to student disruption.
  • Building leadership. To his credit, Fuller has attempted to deal with the most extreme problems by firing or reassigning principals to Central Office. While his decisiveness is appreciated in some quarters, the problem’s magnitude overshadows these actions. There is still no effective procedure to evaluate principals. Nor are those who work with principals — the teachers or parents — consulted by those responsible for making the evaluations.
  • Teaching staff. The fact that less than 22% of the teaching staff are teachers of color, while nearly 73% of the students are children of color, is a persistent problem. While the teachers’ union leadership has expressed an interest in building a coalition in the city around this issue and Fuller has expressed his concern about the matter, insufficient progress has been made.

    The Cooperative Urban Teacher Education Program at MATC is an example of how this issue might be addressed. The program helps MATC students interested in teaching transfer after two years into UWM’s School of Education. Beginning next year, another program agreed to by MPS and the MTEA, will help MPS paraprofessionals obtain teaching degrees. But MPS and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee should be doing much more. In fact, prospective teachers of color have been kept out of UWM by more restrictive entrance policies implemented in the past few years in the School of Education. The current anti-teacher rhetoric and proposals for a wage-freeze by MPS officials will not entice teachers of color to work for MPS, especially given the active recruiting of minority teachers by suburban districts who can offer smaller class sizes and better teaching conditions.
  • Bureaucracy. One of Fuller’s first moves last year was to eliminate the six service delivery areas, saving several million dollars.

    While Fuller has called for the building of a “system of schools” whereby power is transferred from a central bureaucracy to the local school, his proposed budget falls short of making that a reality. In fact, his budget makes no substantial cuts in the central administration while eliminating 160 class room teacher positions.

    In an April budget document, Fuller stressed the “system of schools” concept while simultaneously calling for principals to have more power and limiting site-based management councils to an advisory role. He assured concerned parents and teachers that any good principal would understand the importance of shared decision-making. In practice, however, shared decision-making appears to be a low priority in MPS. The proposed budget eliminates the central office position that helped site-based management at the school level and all funds for future training.
  • Funding. The problem of inadequate funds continues to plague MPS. There is no question that the children of Milwaukee need more money, not less, spent per pupil than the children who live in the north shore suburbs. Whether it is for reducing class size, increasing the number of guidance counselors and social workers, hiring parent organizers, or fulfilling the state mandates for physical education, music, or libraries, Milwaukee desperately needs more resources. Until this funding issue is resolved many other reform proposals will be compromised or deemed impossible.

The proposed budget attempts to move toward a more equitable expenditure of funds on a per pupil basis, promoting equity between elementary, middle, and high schools within MPS. The profoundly negative impact such a budget will have on the high schools and elementary specialty schools would have been lessened if the budget didn’t also cutback funding to schools as a whole (program accounts). More revenue is necessary to successfully pull off this “equity” reform. Unfortunately, the administration did not follow the school board’s advice of last fall when it asked for a budget that had up to 5% property tax increase. While a 0% increase may be politically popular, it could be disastrous for schools. In fact, the proposed budget will actually deepen inequity between suburban and MPS high schools.

Prospects for Change

Perhaps the most disappointing development in MPS this past year was the increased polarization between the central administration and its employees in the schools. We began the school year with a new superintendent noted for his inspiring belief in the abilities of all students and a new MTEA leadership committed to a vision of democratic teacher unionism. Yet MPS and the MTEA have failed to agree on a single substantial issue.

The danger of the present situation is that our efforts will be mired in a self-defeating and ongoing round of scapegoating. The administration has increasingly placed the blame on teachers and their contract. Some board members have placed the blame on Fuller, while others say the board itself is the obstacle to change. Many teachers blame the administration and a recent poll of prospective voters places most of the blame on parents and students.

Each day the probability lessens that the three important groups — the school board, the administration, and the union — will be able to sit down and discuss how to implement substantial reform measures.

This failure, in turn, could endanger the building of a coalition to support a facilities referendum in the future.

Sadly, the source of much of the current climate of frustration and low morale can be traced to the actions and statements of the superintendent. Fuller’s letter to parents and the call for a wage freeze devastated those teachers who were working hardest for reform and contradicted his previous statements that teachers are central to any reform effort in MPS.

Clearly, for reform to succeed, parents and teachers must be involved. Those responsible for carrying out reforms — teachers, assistants, and principals — must, on the one hand be willing to change, while on the other be given enough power so they have a stake in the reform. Unfortunately the end of this school year has been characterized by statements and actions by Fuller that have alienated many people who were initially supportive and who are central to any change.

The level of alienation and low morale among staff, combined with the proposed budget, does not bode well for the year to come. While the budget is touted as a “no-increase” budget, once inflation is taken into account, it actually cuts the total amount of money going to the school level. At a time when our children need more, they are given less. At a time when those working in difficult conditions in our schools need to be motivated, they are being discouraged.

Despite the demoralizing trajectory of the past several months, we contend that common ground can be fought for and won. We do not doubt the commitment of Fuller and substantial numbers of MPS employees to work hard for the best interests of our children. Perhaps it will be around an emerging issue — the future of school reform at North Division, or a campaign around hiring more teachers of color — that the fragile bonds of trust can be rebuilt. The question for the coming year will be whether the School Board, the Superintendent, and the employee unions will be able to find enough common ground to really help the children of Milwaukee.