Black Education Matters

While NBA players tout education reform, Milwaukee school officials continue to rig the game

By JAY MILLER | October 1, 2020

Of the various messages NBA players have displayed on the back of their jerseys recently, there is one that deserves particular attention in addressing the troubling social and economic disparities between Blacks and whites: Education reform.

And, if you were going to pick a single school system where reform is needed most, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) would be a hard one to pass up.

MPS test scores rank near the nation’s bottom (only Detroit’s scores are lower) in the categories of basic reading and math for fourth and eighth graders. MPS school superintendents come and go like so many motorists at a drive-thru restaurant. And most disturbing: The only voice that seems to matter to the school board — the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA) — is a stalwart opponent of meaningful reform.

The Board comprises eight districts with a school board member elected from each one and an additional at-large member elected by voters citywide. The MTEA endorsed all nine of the current members in their respective races. (The ultra-liberal Working Families Party also endorsed eight of the nine.) Further, at least three of the nine have previously held executive positions in the union and one, Bob Peterson, is a former MTEA president.

It is noteworthy that the one incumbent who ran in 2019, Wendell Harris Sr., had won a seat in 2015 with union backing, but lost in 2019 when the MTEA endorsed his opponent. Why the union’s change of heart? During his term on the board, Harris made clear his support for a symbol of reform: charter schools, which are anathema to the MTEA.

During a phone interview, Harris recalled two other major reform initiatives that the MPS school board reviewed during his tenure and jettisoned because of union opposition.

Of course, one could counter: So what, provided that these elected members (and the MTEA) reflect the will of the public?

That’s not the case, however. The city of Milwaukee has slightly over 300,000 registered voters. Divided among the eight school board districts, that would mean there are about 37,500 per district. And yet the votes for all the winning candidates generally amount to about only 10% of registered voters in their districts. Indeed, one school board member prevailed during his most recent race with a vote total of only 1,056.

Now consider that there are almost 10,000 full-time staff positions at MPS and perhaps as many or more retired MPS employees, who along with their voting family members, don’t want to see any structural change in the system.

In a low turnout election, they can easily tilt the election toward the MTEA-favored candidate and away from the candidate MTEA opposes. Just ask Mr. Harris.

This supposition is corroborated by a recent Michigan State University study. It states in part: “Because school board elections typically see very low voter turnout, the fact that individual teachers tend to vote at high rates in districts where they live and work … suggests that teachers [and their union] have a large hand in selecting the school board that employs them.”

To compound the problem, there is little outward indication that MTEA-endorsed school board members have genuine concern with the abysmal academic performance of MPS students. In their bios posted on the Milwaukee School Board homepage, only one member mentions wanting to achieve “higher academic standards for every child.” The rest talk about the need for safe schools and the like.

Not that the latter is unimportant, but shouldn’t the essence of reform be focused on academics? Especially where the need — the disparity between inner-city public schools and the rest — is so acute. You would think so, but the MTEA (and, by extension, the school board) seem primarily intent on increased benefits for employees.

In April, at the urging of the MTEA, Milwaukee voters approved a referendum to increase revenue spending for MPS schools by $87 million per year — that’s on top of a budget that is already in excess of $1 billion. The MTEA president, Amy Mizialko, exulted that it was a win for “our students.” Yet, shortly after the referendum’s passage, the Board directed that $25.5 million (almost 30%) of that increase would go for increasing salaries and benefits of existing staff. Where the students fit in is less obvious.

The pay increases might be defensible, if in exchange for them the MTEA committed to improved academic standards, accountability for teachers and other reform measures. That didn’t happen.

In 2010 the Thomas Fordham Institute, an educational policy think tank, made the following observation about reform of Milwaukee’s school system:

“Milwaukee’s district environment is a significant barrier to reform. MPS leadership appears reluctant to disrupt the status quo. District leaders do not communicate a sense of urgency, make bold decisions or have the political support they need to advance reform. Worse, they face a reform-averse teachers’ union that wields enough political influence to block or weaken such changes as alternative certification and performance pay.”

Ten years later, nothing has changed. Indeed, the MTEA’s grip on the school board and policy decision is greater than ever, leaving the status quo entrenched.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that Blacks living in Milwaukee with children in voucher or charter schools have already demonstrated they want education reform. And they are not alone. In 2019 the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty conducted a state-wide poll on education and it showed that over 60% of the Black respondents were in favor of both types of choice schools.

Has anyone in a position of authority ever actually thought about doing things differently? Well, believe it or not, the answer is yes.

Back in 2009, then-Gov. Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett proposed that the mayor take over responsibility for the public schools. The reason stated was the need for radical change or reform. The MTEA and its allies vociferously opposed the idea, presumably because their influence would wane, and it got shot down in the legislature.

Among the arguments made against the proposal was that it would wrest local control away from the voters. That was a complete canard, however, because as noted above most voters don’t vote in school board elections. As Doyle said at the time and is still true today: “The public will have their say much more forcefully in those [mayoral] elections than in those for School Board.”

It’s too bad that the protesters in Milwaukee who advocate for reform of the police and their unions don’t turn their attention to the MTEA and flood school board meetings demanding change there, too. If even the NBA recognizes the need for education reform, it ought to resonate here as well.

Jay Miller of Whitefish Bay is a tax attorney and a visiting fellow at the Badger Institute.

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