Year in Review: A Rethinking Schools Analysis

By Barbara Miner

Yellow ribbons still hang from school doors reminding us that the Gulf War was perhaps the most significant event this past school year. But we must not forget that some of the doors are in need of repair and if current trends continue, this year may be best remembered as the year of devastating cutbacks in education.

In Milwaukee it will also be remembered as a year of indecision. This might surprise people who learn about Milwaukee from the national media which have publicized Milwaukee’s choice program, African-American immersion schools, Learnfare, and the departure of Superintendent Peterkin and Deputy Superintendent McGriff.

But national media didn’t mention the opportunity lost when lack of consensus prevented the School Board from quickly appointing a successor to Superintendent Peterkin. The failure to act decisively focused media and board attention on naming a successor instead of dealing with the serious issues of achievement and organization that continue to confront the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

Nonetheless, despite enormous problems with financial shortfalls and a divided board there is still reason to look to the future of Milwaukee with some optimism. There is a serious move afoot in MPS to re-tool the curriculum. Initiatives at the school level continue to flower; there is new leadership in the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA); multicultural curriculum is on the agenda; and finally new efforts to organize parent and community groups have met with some success.

On the whole the events of the past year make up a mixed picture.


First several disappointing developments.

  • President Bush with Congress’s approval squandered billions of dollars on an unnecessary war and continues to pump hundreds of billions into a bloated military budget. Meanwhile, school districts around the country face massive cutbacks and social services continue to degenerate. The result is that millions of
  • children suffer effects of malnutrition, poor housing and health care, lack of jobs for their parents, and underfunded schools, parks, and recreational facilities.
  • Bush’s education plans emphasizing private school choice, increased business involvement in schools, and national testing, if passed into law, would be sure to debilitate public education. His attempt to “privatize” education is an extension of Reagan’s effort to privatize many public services. The current fiscal crisis looming over state and local governments is a result of the Reagan/Bush policy of forcing states to pick up more of the cost of those public services which remain.
  • Governor Tommy Thompson’s policies are not much better. He continues to misunderstand the needs of Milwaukee’s children. The governor vacillates between ill conceived headline catching programs like Learnfare and private school choice and downright anti-education policies like his budget plan. He seems to be ignoring the recommendations by the Wisconsin Commission on Education in the 21st Century, at least those recommendations which are pro-child in character or cost money.
  • Locally there has been only glacial movement by the powers that be — the Mayor’s office, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and MPS — in the development of a long range educational and building plan. This inertia condemns both current students and future students to overcrowded schools. It is shameful, for example, that the 1,034 children at the south side Allen Field School, the largest elementary school in Wisconsin, have overcrowded classrooms, no art or music room, and no certified librarian. Even the several new schools scheduled to open in the fall will be at best a stop gap measure barely able to deal with increased student population. Clearly, a top item on the new superintendent’s agenda must be the development, funding, and implementation of an educationally sound building plan.
  • The pending cutbacks in our schools threaten to have devastating effects. While we applaud attempts to make serious cuts at bureaucracy at any level in this system and to redirect resources to the classroom, many of the proposed cutbacks including K-4 kindergarten, reading resource teachers, implementors, learning coordinators, and human relations staff, are intolerable and must be challenged by those people who care about children.
  • Problems with leadership and organization in the Milwaukee Public Schools continue. After two years of reorganization in which Milwaukee was divided in to six “service delivery areas” headed up by community superintendents, it is clear things are not substantially better. We desperately need programs to help teachers, those who are new and those who are in need. Many of the service delivery area instructional support teams haven’t lived up to expectations in this area. We must also push for more decisions at the local school level, unfettered by layers of bureaucracy. The recent internal evaluations of the reorganization indicate to us that one can’t go half way. Either the whole program should be scrapped with a streamlined central office and genuine site-based management created at the school level, or central office should be pared down to give the six service delivery areas enough resources to really provide services. Bold leadership in this area will be one of the first tasks facing the new superintendent.

Points for Optimism

Amidst the rather gloomy problems outlined above, all hope is not lost. There are some very positive developments that, if properly supported, could become quite significant.

  • Multicultural Education Around the nation a growing recognition of the need for multicultural education has spawned hundreds of attempts on the part of local school districts to pursue this matter. In Wisconsin, efforts led by Dr. Asa Hilliard and state initiatives like the Indian Education Legislation show that grass-roots pressure is growing to reshape curriculum and instruction to make it more multicultural. Unfortunately such efforts have met a barrage of well-financed attacks in the national media, with magazines such as Newsweek running cover stories maligning multicultural education advocates as “thought police.”

    Here in Milwaukee the efforts to move the district towards multicultural education have involved hundreds of people in workshops and local school projects. The work to develop the African-American immersion schools, the recent establishment of a Multicultural Elementary Teachers Council, patterned after the successful whole language council, and the inclusion of multicultural education as a major priority in K-12 reform are steps in the right direction. The transformation of curriculum and teaching to make it multicultural, however, will not be easily accomplished. As Asa Hilliard has said, ultimately “curriculum is what is in teachers’ heads,” and we must go through a long and at times intense process to overcome years of schooling in a racially prejudiced society.

    Finally in this area it is worth noting that there has been substantial preparation this past year for alternate commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.

    Dozens of Native American groups and progressive coalitions are seeing this quincentennial as an opportunity to educate people about the history of race, colonialism, and genocide in the Americas.
  • K-12 Reform In 1987 Milwaukee teachers banded together to defeat the “Outcomes Based Education” curricular reform initiative, a plan which listed thousands of learner objectives that would have pressured classroom teachers to cover many topics in a shallow manner stressing memorization and recall. Since that time a growing number of educators have worked steadfastly to revamp the curriculum using a completely different educational philosophy. The K-12 Curriculum Report, issued last year, put forth a perspective that involved teachers, parents, and principals in all aspects of the process and viewed curricula as a dynamic process, stressing deep thinking, equity, heterogeneous grouping, and multicultural education. The steps taken this year have begun an exciting process which is helping teachers rethink both the content and methods of their teaching. Parent and community groups are being surveyed regarding their priorities for children, and service delivery areas are sponsoring town hall meetings and other efforts to gain the input and participation of parents. In a recent city-wide conference, principals began to grapple collectively with their role as leaders of educational change.

    While a long way from achieving its goals, if resources and time can be found, the current course of development is likely to bear much fruit.

    Other curricular initiatives, some at the school level funded by “equity grants” and others at cross-school levels such as the work of the whole language schools and the ungraded primary pilot efforts, also demonstrate that successful projects require that the practitioners be involved in the decision making and that adequate resources be provided.
  • Grassroots Organizing Nationally, education is getting more attention not only from President Bush, but also from grassroots organizers who recognize the importance of public education. Encouraging is the successful effort of the Minneapolis Coalition for Better Schools to mount a city referendum campaign that funded substantial class size reduction.Another optimistic sign is the coalition built between community groups, parents, and the teachers union in New York City to stave off huge cutbacks. It is an indication that teacher unions can overcome their strict bread and butter mentality and see the absolute necessity to work in equal partnerships with parents and community organizations. Likewise, the efforts of parents and teachers in Chicago to establish a new form of cooperative leadership at the school level is continuing despite some setbacks.

    On a smaller scale the growth of actual organizations that promote educational equity and organizing is worth mentioning. The role that local chapters of the National Alliance of Black School Educators has played in promoting multicultural curriculum is noteworthy. The small but politically promising multiracial coalition of parents and teachers in the National Coalition of Education Activists is another positive development.

    Locally the biggest grassroots organizing success on school issues has been the election of some new progressive leadership into the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. A slate of candidates headed by Michael Langyel and Rita Tenorio won by a substantial margin in the April elections. The slate’s platform of increasing member participation in the union and encouraging the union to work more actively in alliance with parent and community groups holds out promise for the future.

Finally we are happy to note that despite the School Board debacle of not hiring Deborah McGriff as the new superintendent, Howard Fuller, their likely choice, has a long history of being involved in and committed to grassroots organizing.


The near universal chorus demanding better schools opens the door to deep changes in education. But it is not clear whose agenda will dominate these changes. If President Bush, Governor Thompson, and their corporate allies hold sway, our children will fall prey to budget cuts, privatization schemes, and a standardized testing mania the depth and breadth of the proposed cuts and fear that some retrenchment is unavoidable.

“We’re trying to minimize the cuts, but we’re going to get hit,” said Don Murphy, an editor of the grass-roots School Voices newspaper in New York City and a member of the Save Our Schools coalition. “Then, we have to figure out how to get out of this crisis.”

A broad labor/community coalition has developed in New York City to counter cuts that would affect not only schools but transportation, libraries, hospitals and basics such as garbage removal. At this point, the coalition has agreed that a key focus must be on a more just tax structure, he said.

“There is no way to protect education as a privileged enclave,” Murphy said. “That won’t work. The crisis has to be tied to other social issues.”

Taxes, Equity, and Federal Priorities

While debating tax structures can be a dizzying prospect for anyone without a doctorate in economics, advocates of a more just tax structure make a few key points.

First, tax breaks and loopholes that protect businesses and corporations must be closed. Second, taxes on individuals must be progressive — in other words the share of income paid out in taxes should rise as income rises.

Progressive income taxes, for example, make those in higher-income brackets pay a higher percentage in taxes. In addition, some states have instituted a corporate income tax, also a highly progressive tax.

Sales and excise taxes, on the other hand, are generally regressive: i.e., they claim a higher percentage of the income of poor and middle class people than of rich people.

Even though rich people may spend three times as much money on consumer goods, if they make ten times as much money as poor people, they are paying a lower percentage of their income in sales taxes.

Property taxes, which provide the bulk of local support for schools, have become more regressive in recent years, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, a research and lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. From 1985 to 1991, state and local property taxes rose as a percent of income for poor and middle-income families, but declined for the richest one percent. At the same time, the group notes that well-designed property tax laws have the advantage of taxing business.

Until the 1980s, there was generally bi-partisan support for tax progressivity, according to a recent national tax study by Citizens for Tax Justice. That changed with the Reagan era. In fact, tax structures are now generally regressive, forcing poorer and middle-income people to pay a higher share of their income on taxes than rich people do.

“When all of the major state and local taxes are are added together, virtually every state taxes its poor and middle-income families at rates significantly higher than those faced by the richest families,” according to the study.

Given the legacy of the Reagan administration and the anti-tax sentiment that dominates in Washington and many state capitals, progressives note that they have their work cut out for them.

“This is not going to be an easy project,” said Richard Kruse, director of government relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Someone is going to have to be very bold and very articulate….No one wants to touch taxes.

It’s a way to retire early if you’re a politician.”

Dirt Floors Versus Computers

Many education activists are also looking at the issue of funding equity and the fact that affluent school districts are able to spend far more per student than poor districts.

In addition to state aid, local schools are financed by local taxes, primarily property taxes. (The federal government pays only a small percentage of local education costs.) But areas with less valuable property, be they homes or businesses, don’t have as much money for schools. Thus rich districts are often able to spend more per pupil even while having a smaller property tax levy.

Some 19 states currently have lawsuits in which the school finance system is being challenged, according to the Education Commission of the States (See Rethinking Schools Vol. 5, No. 2). The actions follow much-publicized cases in Texas and New Jersey, where the courts declared the financing systems illegal, mainly because of spending disparities between rich and poor districts.

C.J. Prentiss, a Democratic representative from Cleveland in the Ohio legislature, said a lawsuit challenging the state’s education financing structure is a necessity.

“That’s the only hope,” she said. “I don’t see a willingness on the legislature’s part to reprioritize the budget.”

“We have a school with dirt floors in the state of Ohio,” she added. “The kids have to go across the street to go to the bathroom.”

Educators caution, however, that the rhetoric of equal funding can be misused to justify equal dollar amounts of state aid to all districts on a per pupil basis. Such an approach ignores that some districts, in particular large cities, have a disproportionate number of poor people with special needs and therefore deserve higher-than-average state support.

Finally, education advocates note that there must be a national effort to change federal priorities.

Federal spending on education has declined in the last decade — from 9.2% of school funding in 1980 to 6.3% in 1990, according to the National Education Association. But the issue is far more complex than direct federal funds.

When the Reagan administration cut social services spending and hiked peace-time military spending to unprecedented heights, it forced states and municipalities to pick up more of the tab for problems such as hunger, homelessness, and health care.

Cities were particularly hurt by the cuts in federal social spending. In New York City, for example, the annual cost of federal cuts is more than $3 billion, almost the exact size of the city’s current deficit.

Local and state taxes escalated to compensate for the loss of federal funds, with the taxes disproportionately affecting poor and middle-income people. And now the schools are facing the consequences of over-taxed poor and middle-income people who are crying “enough.”

“The last 11 years have consolidated a retreat of the federal government from its responsibility,” notes Simon of Montgomery County. “Somehow the issues have been presented to the public in a way that (results in) money going for new and better Stealth bombers and S&L bailouts, and the squeeze is being put on public schools.”

Medicaid represents a good example of how the federal government has abandoned its responsibility, forcing the states to try to solve problems that should be addressed at the federal level because they are national problems.

Medicaid is a federally mandated program of health care for poor people, and states must pick up roughly half the cost. In 1980, Medicaid spending accounted for 9% of state budgets. By 1990 the figure had jumped to nearly 14%, according to the National Governor’s Association. In 1991, Medicaid spending by states is expected to increase by nearly 25%.

Although a national strategy must be developed that demands increased federal responsibility, education activists note that for now the struggle is being played out on the local and state level.

And while the news is often bleak, the onslaught has also led to new coalitions and alliances that can be used not just to defend education, but a range of social services.

Taka Suzuki, principal at Middleton Street School in the Los Angeles area, said she was heartened by the recent formation of a group in southern California that, appropriately, was called The Unusual Coalition.

“It was truly a coming together of groups that have sometimes been adversaries,” she said.

Composed of organizations ranging from PTA groups, to teachers, some businesses, administrators and parents, the coalition is part of a massive lobbying effort to force the state legislature to find revenues for needed social services.

“The legislators just won’t come out and say, ‘We want to raise taxes,’” Suzuki said. “They have to be able to say that the people want it.”

In Indiana, Kacen said they had also learned important lessons in their fight to stave off the most devastating education cuts.

One lesson is that when the people are organized, they can counter the clout of the politically well-connected. The opposition to the cuts there was based on “a groundswell of people,” she said. “And that groundswell has generated power.”

Most important, they had learned not to assume that people don’t care.

“We assume that there is not support for the schools, but there is,” Kacen said. “We assume that people are unwilling to pay for schools, but they are.”

Barbara Miner is a journalist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.