Stephanie Findley learned the hard way that while the public favors school reform, the political system is rigged to kill it.
Stephanie Findley was not just some carpetbagger looking for a job when she decided to run for the Assembly earlier this year.
She had a job — a few of them, actually. She worked as an office manager for Milwaukee District Council 48, a large and politically active labor group. She owned a small business, Fast & Accurate Business Solutions. She taught classes at the Spanish Center in Milwaukee and at Bryant & Stratton College.
A single mother who says she was already pregnant when she walked across the stage to get her Milwaukee Public High School degree some 20 years ago, Findley had overcome poverty and earned a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch. She was also active in the Democratic Party, was head of the City of Milwaukee’s Election Commission and volunteered for too many organizations to count.
She was a 20-year resident of the 10th Assembly District, which has long been the province of retiring lawmaker Annette Polly Williams — a woman many still call “the mother of school choice” — when she decided to run for the seat herself. Findley, after all, had many of the same struggles and worries her neighbors did — including the high cost of health care, taxes, and the quality of MPS schools.
“Education is one of the major issues in the district,” she says. “People are very frustrated by the education system in Milwaukee. They feel trapped.”
Tired of politics as usual, she seemed like the perfect fit — until Milwaukee County Supv. Elizabeth Coggs and elements of organized labor hostile to school reform taught her a bitter lesson about how Milwaukee politics really works.
Findley grew up believing in elections. She would stay up late in high school watching returns come in. “I was on my parents about going to vote,” she recalls.
Still, what happened in the September primary is a tough pill for her to swallow — and one that helps explain the disconnect between Milwaukeeans and many of their politicians on education issues.
“I still have some bitterness about how this came down,” Findley says after losing a three-way primary to Coggs.
The fall elections could hardly have come at a more ominous time for Milwaukee, the fourth-poorest large city in America. More than 60,000 children in the city live in poverty, and most of them can’t read. That’s not hyperbole.
Only 6% of black students in Milwaukee Public Schools score at a level considered “proficient” in reading in either fourth or eighth grade, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Yet Wisconsin has failed repeatedly to show sufficient backbone on school reform to qualify for billions in federal “Race to the Top” money the Obama administration is handing out to more innovative and engaged states. The essential problem, say observers: MPS.
Findley gives the district an overall grade of D and rates its performance as “only fair.” Many of her neighbors are even more critical. Almost half (47%) of 492 Milwaukeeans surveyed say MPS is doing a poor job. One out of five (21%) give the district a grade of F, while another 44% give it a C or a D.
Education is supposed to be the lifeline in the city.
“There is so much going on in this world, drugs and violence, I want my kids educated to the full extent,” says Jasmine Calhoun, a mother of two young children, as she stands outside Auer Avenue School in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods on a crisp fall morning. “I can’t afford private school.”
The lifeline, however, appears to those who need it most to be untethered.
Worry and fear for another generation of Milwaukee’s children, indeed for the city itself, are not emotions with any particular political affiliation. Regular Milwaukeeans — mostly Democrats (45% in the June poll) or self-described independents (24%), if they profess any political bent at all — support myriad school reforms that would increase accountability and flexibility.
Hardly anybody — about one in 10 people — identifies themselves as a Republican in the city. Still, twice as many Milwaukeeans favor the formation of charter schools as oppose them. Almost seven out of 10 think more money would help MPS, but they don’t want it spent the same way it currently is. Fifty percent favor basing teachers’ salaries, in part, on student academic progress on tests (versus 36% in opposition).
City residents are wary of tenure, at least the way it currently exists. Four out of five, meanwhile, support requiring students to pass exams before graduating or moving on to certain grades.
Kevin Pearson — a guy who says his father was driving a truck at the age of 14 and wanted something better for him — is one of them.
“Until the seventh grade, I couldn’t read,” says Pearson, an MPS graduate who sent three of his own children through the city’s schools and is now a 49-year-old carpenter. “I don’t think you should pass a student along to get him out of your class just so he can be someone else’s problem.”
Pearson knows the immeasurable value of a dedicated teacher. He still vividly remembers two teachers who “gave up their lunchtime to teach me how to read at Peckham Junior High.” He is also grateful to the school administrator who caught him smoking a joint when he was a high school freshman, told him he was a role model to other kids and to conduct himself as such. From then on, Pearson says, he did. Three years later, he passed an exam required to graduate from MPS’s Washington High School.
“That’s the way it was when I graduated, and it should be that way today,” he says of the graduation test.
Not all city residents agree on all the specifics, of course. But there is strong support for school choice, which allows students from low-income families to use tuition vouchers and attend private schools in Milwaukee at no cost to their families.
According to the June polling directed by UW-Madison political scientist Kenneth Goldstein for the Refocus Wisconsin project (which is sponsored by this magazine’s publisher, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute), more than 70% of Milwaukee respondents said that school choice should be expanded to low-income families statewide.
In a second poll in July that included 200-plus Milwaukeeans, more than twice as many city residents expressed direct support for government helping pay the tuition of low-income children in private schools as were opposed.
It is a different story among elected officials, and what happened to Findley goes a long way toward showing why.
Findley has a nuanced view of education issues. Unlike most of her neighbors, she believes there is an adequate amount of funding for MPS and questions the way it is spent. She is not a proponent of all reforms. She says she is somewhat supportive of charter schools (which are usually run by MPS) and has come around on the issue of school choice.
“At first,” she says, “I was strongly against choice, until the children said, ‘What about us?’”
“All I care about is the kids — no matter what school they go to — receiving a quality education.”
She has concerns about the financial management and curriculum of some choice schools, but says that high schools like Messmer and St. Joan Antida — where her daughter attended high school as a non-choice student — excel.
Findley wouldn’t necessarily describe herself as pro-voucher, but says she is “open” to them — a position that, popular as it is among city residents, prompted a vehement backlash from some factions of the labor movement and, she believes, ended up being used against her by a veteran political opponent who ran against her in the primary.
“Beth Coggs, bless her heart, she played lowball with labor on the voucher issue,” says Findley.
Elizabeth “Beth” Coggs is the daughter of two figures revered in Milwaukee’s African-American community — onetime legislators Isaac and Marcia Coggs. She is also a longtime Milwaukee County Board member who, up until at least the November election, lived in the 1300 block of North 18th Street, an area that is not part of the 10th Assembly District.
There’s a good reason Coggs did not run for office where she lives, some believe. “If she had run for Assembly in the district in which she lives, she would have had to have run against her cousin, Leon Young,” points out Sherman Hill, the former executive director of the Harambee Ombudsman Project. He ran against both Coggs and Findley in the primary.
While Young is Beth Coggs’ state representative, another relative — Spencer Coggs — is her state senator. A third, Milele Coggs, is a Milwaukee alderperson, who became part of a confrontational exchange with a poll worker the night of the primary when she demanded to see results from races that included Beth Coggs’ contest against Findley and Hill. The poll worker called 911 and contended that Milele Coggs hit him with her car while backing out of the parking lot — something Milele Coggs, who was not charged, denied.
If there was anxiety in the Coggs camp about the primary, it was likely due to Findley and what appeared to be her deep ties to the Democratic Party, labor, its money and its votes.
District Council 48, the group for which Findley works, is composed of all American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee locals in Milwaukee County. Forty-eight is, in turn, part of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO. At the start of her campaign, Findley had deep support right up the labor ladder.
Richard Abelson, executive director of Council 48, gave her $50 in June. The Wisconsin political action committee of the Service Employees International Union contributed $500 around the same time. Sheila Cochran, chief operating officer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, chipped in $100 in August, around the same time that SEIU Local 150 funneled another $500 her way.
By late August, AFSCME’s Washington PAC had given Findley $500, and the District Council 48 People Fund Committee had given her another $500.
Findley is a true-blue Democrat who can be deeply critical of Republicans. Labor supporters, however, did not get the one essential thing they appear to have wanted in return for their support: fealty to the public school system that so many residents of Milwaukee say is failing their children.
Findley became tainted in the eyes of labor. Her problem: It became apparent that school choice backers liked her as well. The Fund for Parent Choice — a conduit that includes contributors such as former MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller, school reform leader and former MPS administrator Deborah McGriff and longtime school choice advocates Susan and George Mitchell — gave Findley’s campaign $3,600.
Joe Williams, a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter who is now executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York, helped with a fundraiser, according to Findley’s finance reports. And the American Federation for Children Action Fund — a school choice group for whom former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen acts as a consultant — spent considerable money canvassing in the district, according to reports filed with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
To some labor leaders, it became clear, Findley’s receptiveness to school choice was an act of treason.
“To be clear, many union candidates accept voucher schools as a legal reality, but they prefer public education and say so in labor interviews, as Findley did and won major union backing,” Dominique Paul Noth, communications director of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, wrote in the Labor Press, which he edits.
The Labor Council “had first supported” Findley, wrote Noth, until she started “playing both sides to win” or, perhaps, just acted “foolishly.”
He wrote that there was displeasure with brochures distributed by AFC that, without permission, included pictures of labor leaders. But there were also clearly larger ideological issues and enough pressure to cause Findley to tell labor leaders she was returning school choice money given directly to her campaign.
“There was not any formal withdrawal of support” of Findley, says the Labor Council’s Cochran. “I think there was some disappointment with what was going on with how the race ended up.”
Exactly what the “disappointment” was over is murky because Cochran declines to get into specifics. But she did concede there was concern among some about the school choice money in the race.
“It just raises red flags with folks,” she says.
Assembly races in Milwaukee are not big-spending affairs. Campaign finance reports filed by Hill shortly before the primary show he spent less than $1,600. Findley received and spent around $12,000, according to campaign reports that indicate the donation from the Fund for Parent Choice was not actually returned to choice supporters.
Findley says she tried to return the money but the fund wouldn’t take it back. The fund’s administrator, Renee Bartelt, puts it differently.
“On August 31, Findley’s campaign cut a check to the Fund for Parent Choice for $3,600, returning the contributions to the conduit,” wrote Bartelt in an email to Wisconsin Interest. “I tried to deposit the check to the conduit’s bank account, but the check bounced due to insufficient funds.”
Either way, it appears clear, Findley felt pressured to appease labor interests opposed to school choice.
Coggs, meanwhile, gathered in the money and support of both the Milwaukee and statewide teachers unions. According to campaign finance reports filed in late October, she raised about $15,000, over half of which she personally contributed or loaned to her campaign. Only $400 of Coggs’ contributions came from residents of the 10th Assembly District she was running in.
Her biggest contributors other than herself: her cousin Leon Young, who contributed $500 from his campaign fund, and three PACS. The Wisconsin Education Association Council PAC in Madison, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association PAC in Milwaukee and the United Transportation Union PAC located in Ohio each gave her $500. Both WEAC and the MTEA, in addition, endorsed her.
Coggs did not respond to requests for an interview, nor did she reply to emails asking for her positions on education issues. A story in the Milwaukee Courier shortly before the primary, however, described her as “elated, appreciative and thankful” to get the WEAC and MTEA endorsements.
John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee and a Democrat, speculates that Coggs will not be particularly supportive of school choice. He also provides a blunt analysis of union opposition.
He says the unions oppose school choice not because it hurts students, but because it hurts unions. “And they have a legitimate interest in looking out for themselves,” Norquist adds. “If they could organize private schools, they would stop opposing vouchers.”
It is no secret that teachers unions do not support voucher schools. What’s more interesting is how much influence they appear to wield over other labor organizations that initially supported Findley, subsequently abandoned her, and then, in the Noth article in the Labor Press, rubbed salt in her wounds.
“Coggs’ reputation and campaigning deservedly carried the day with 67% of the vote,” wrote Noth in the Labor Press.
Forget the fact that the candidate with a long history of controversy and negative publicity as a Milwaukee County supervisor didn’t even live in the district she is now going to represent and raised almost no money there.
Findley, a candidate with strong Democratic and labor ties as well as a deep history in the district, was described in the same Labor Press article as having suffered “an equally deserved loss” and was essentially portrayed as being either naïve or duplicitous.
Findley says the article in the Labor Press hurt.
“I was with labor forever. I am still with labor,” says the woman who still works for AFSCME’s District Council 48, a group that eventually endorsed Coggs in the general election. “To be vilified that way really gave me heartburn.”
It is possible for a Democratic politician in the poorer part of Milwaukee to support some types of school reform and remain in office. State Rep. Jason Fields says he believes in “pay for performance” for teachers and says state test results could possibly factor into that. Although he says he has lately gotten some WEAC support, he is also an outright supporter of charter and choice schools.
In Fields’ words, “any child who resides in a district where the quality of education is failing deserves an opportunity to succeed,” and MPS is failing. He cites the achievement gap between black students and white students as proof, as well as the drop-out rate in the district.
“I reflect,” says Fields, who ran unopposed this fall for his 11th District seat, “exactly how my constituents feel.”
He is, however, a rarity among city legislators. Findley isn’t the only candidate who either backed away from choice or lost a race in part because of supporting school choice.
State Sen. Jeff Plale lost his Democratic primary to Chris Larson, another Milwaukee County supervisor with substantial support from teachers and teachers unions. Larson then went on in the general election to defeat Jess Ripp, an MPS critic and school-reform advocate.
Former Milwaukee Ald. Angel Sanchez lost a primary battle in the 8th Assembly District to JoCasta Zamarripa, who handily won the general election.
All those races were about much more than education issues, but there is a clear message: Despite high levels of support for school choice among city residents, there are political consequences for Milwaukee legislators who back it. Choice supporters, conversely, might have popular support, but not when it comes time to vote.
Beth Coggs, in the end, won an extremely low turn-out primary and then went on in the general election to handily beat an independent candidate best known for trying to put a slogan on the ballot next to her name describing herself as “NOT the ‘whiteman’s bitch’.” Coggs is now heading to Madison to replace Williams.
Stephanie Findley says she may well be heading off someplace as well.
Like almost 40% of other Milwaukeeans, she says she is likely to move out of the state in the next three years. Concerned about a lack of business, arts and entertainment culture for young, black professionals, Findley thinks she needs to look for a different place to lead her life.
“Especially in the black community [in Milwaukee], things are dire,” says Findley. “A lot of the elected officials who represent the black community now, where are they?”
Mike Nichols is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.