Barbara Miner on the Struggle to Protect Milwaukee Public Schools

“I refuse to use the phrase ‘failed schools,’” said Barbara Miner. “Milwaukee public schools are about abandonment and privatization, not about failed schools. We have to connect the dots city by city. We are about caring for our children, our community, and our democracy.”

On March 11, Miner, a journalist who has written extensively on education issues for more than four decades, spoke at the National Education Association. A former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal and former managing editor at Rethinking Schools, Miner has been published in The New York Times and The Nation, and The Progressive. She is the author of a new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City, which traces the politics of public education in Milwaukee from the 1950s to early 2000s, the city’s prevalent financial descent and its struggling public schools. At the NEA, she shared personal stories of children from this Wisconsin community who have benefitted from the city’s public schools, including Gwen Moore

During the 1960s, Moore attended North Division High School, which had a majority African American student body. Moore initially wanted to attends West Division High School, where African Americans were in the minority, but was denied admittance. But Moore quickly grew to love North Divisions where she felt accepted among her peers and was revered for her leadership skills. She soon learned that when she spoke others listened.  “People appreciated me for being intelligent,” Moore said of the students at North Division. This school gave her the room to grow and recognize her own potential. Moore entered politics and is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Wisconsin’s 4th district.

Dennis Rodriguez had a similar experience during his high school career.

Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Rodriquez immigrated to the United States when he was eleven years old. When he was in high school he believed his schoolwork wasn’t important because of his undocumented status. Yet, he loved reading, which inspired him to improve his education. Today, Dennis is an activist working with Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES!) a youth-led group centering on student, immigrant and worker rights that is part of Voces de la Frontera, the leading organization in Wisconsin for immigrant rights.

“Milwaukee public schools have the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to educate all,” Miner sais at the NEA. That tradition, Miner said, is threatened by charter schools and vouchers that re being pushed by Gov. Scott Walker.

Miner explained that Walker and others use seductive language – words such as “choice” and “options” – to sell the public on a misguided scheme to increase the number of privately run charters that operate independent of local school boards. She strongly urged that advocates of public education everywhere must challenge this rhetoric and help educate citizens on the real agenda behind these policies. Another commonly used term “Independent” is merely a euphemism for “independent of public control and oversight.” “Privately run” is a more accurate term, says Miner.

Although there are nine charter schools in Milwaukee, no information about them is made available to the public. Without this oversight parents, students, and communities cannot forge a connection with these schools. Adding onto this is the financial stress that voucher schools are putting on Milwaukee’s public schools, Miner said

“Public dollars pay for private schools. Money is being taken away from public schools to be used by Milwaukee’s voucher schools.  Voucher schools don’t have to require that their teachers have diplomas and they don’t have to provide the same level of special education.”

Will education and Milwaukee’s public schools be able to survive Walker’s agenda?  Miner offered a brusque and somewhat reassuring answer.

“We survived Joe. McCarthy. We will survive Scott Walker.”