Educate All Students, Support Public Education

January 28, 2013

A Review of Django Unchained

Filed under: Revisionist History — millerlf @ 9:49 pm
I spent years teaching U.S. history in Milwaukee Public Schools. I focused on African-American experience in U.S. history and its meaning today. When the movie Django Unchained was released this year, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, I planned not to see it because of my low respect for his work. But there has been so much discussion about the movie, I decided to see it so I could compare its depiction to the narrative I had established with my students over the years in teaching about slavery. Following is my review of the movie. I hope that my students (many whom are friends on Facebook) and others will find some value with my thoughts.

Tarantino Bloodies the Truth: A History Teacher’s Lament

By Larry Miller

As a U.S. history teacher, I taught high school students that resistance to slavery was pervasive. Whether it was the open rebellion of Nat Turner, the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, the battle of the Negro Fort, the publication of Walker’s Appeal, the Underground Railroad or the daily acts of resistance that included work stoppages, slowdowns, and slow poisoning of plantation owners’ families, people living in slavery repeatedly demonstrated opposition to the slave system, sometimes at great cost.  None of this is evident in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Django Unchained. Instead, the movie reinforces just about every stereotype I tried to challenge in my history classes.

Django begins in 1858 and flows into 1859 and possibly beyond. 1859 happens to be the year of the John Brown-led attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, an action that was intended by this section of the abolitionist movement to launch an uprising that would lead to the end of slavery. The rebellion did not take place in isolation but was nurtured by a growing anti-slavery movement throughout the United States and its territories.

Tarantino’s depiction of these years shows no resistance to slavery. Enslaved people in Django are compliant, the abolition movement utterly invisible. Instead, the “resistance” presented in the film is generated either by the white bounty hunter, Schultz, or by the formerly enslaved Django once he gains a sense of power in the shadow of Schultz. The movie brings Django and Schultz together with the goal of capturing three slave overseers from Django’s past who are also wanted for murdering whites. Django agrees to help Schultz collect the bounty on these three, and Schultz will then help Django free his wife, who is being held on a Mississippi plantation called Candieland.

I did not have high expectations before seeing Django. I’ve been dismayed by Tarantino’s fetish with violent special effects, and especially by his blatant racism, for example, depictions of Mexicans as lizard-like vampires in From Dusk till Dawn. But Django was even worse than I expected. I have heard defenses of Tarantino that include, “…he can’t be racist, he had a black stepfather. He had black girlfriends.” Whatever his experience or intentions, the movie was ahistorical and racist.

Tarantino attempts to disarm the viewer with cartoonish street humor that reminded me of Blazing Saddles. For example when Django is told by Schultz he can pick the clothes he wishes to wear, he chooses a powder blue satin “little Lord Fauntleroy” suit, a pimp-like outfit that could have been worn in the court of Marie Antoinette.

The 109 uses of the N-word is supposed to invest this depiction of the antebellum South with reality. It doesn’t. In big and little ways, Django mangles the history. The movie opens by telling viewers that it takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War. Of course, the Civil War began in 1861, not 1860, but it doesn’t really matter, because the film contains nothing that makes the date even slightly meaningful. In one scene, vigilantes wore Ku Klux Klan-like hoods. However, there was no need for anyone to wear a hood at a time when rape, murder, brutality, and capturing runaway slaves were all perfectly legal, and anti-slave militias were institutionalized. In fact, there was no KKK until after the Civil War.

Another hallmark of Tarantino’s movie is the fear in the lowered eyes of African Americans, refusing to make eye contact with whites. They fail to resist even when Django kills the overseers from a mining company and leaves open the door of the slave transport cage. The men sit motionless watching Django ride into the horizon back to the Mississippi plantation, not to lead a slave rebellion, but to free his wife and take revenge on that single plantation.

No doubt, Tarantino depicts brutality toward African Americans on the screen. But in an attempt to portray the psychology of the slave owner and slave society, Tarantino bores the viewer with empty dialogue that dominates long sections of the movie. Tarantino has nothing intelligent to say about the psychological underpinnings of white supremacy.

Tarantino does not spare the gore. He seems to have a fetish with presenting blood and flesh. Evidently, he is attempting some symbolism with the splattering of red blood on the white cotton growing in the field, on the white mane of a horse, and on the white walls of a plantation parlor. Yeah, we get it. But the result is to draw attention to itself rather than to connect the viewer with the institution of slavery. It’s a diversion. Tarantino cares lots more about special effects than he does the human resistance to suffering and oppression.

Don’t get me wrong. The slave owners, the slave profiteers and the slave system merited fierce reprisals. But the goal of the slaves and the abolition movement was not revenge, but to end the slave system and all that it represented. In Django, violence is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

There is one person the viewer comes to hate more than anyone, even more than Candie, the sadistic slave master. This is Stephen, the slave master’s always-fawning head house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This guy is truly subservient. But here, too, Tarantino relies on—and deepens—the stereotype of the slave who lives to serve his master. In my history classes, I wanted my students to understand that there was a duality to the role of house slaves. In fact, there are many instances recorded of plantation owners’ sense of betrayal when their supposedly loyal house servants fled to Union lines and freedom at the first possible opportunity during the Civil War. In the real world, enslaved house slaves could be both obedient and long for liberty. But in Django Unchained, the Samuel L. Jackson character shows no such duality. He is simply a despicable, malicious person, loving his master’s very existence.

Enslaved African-American women in the film play largely to two stereotypes: the mammy and the sexual temptress. One exception might be Kerry Washington’s character, Brunhilde, as Django’s wife, who was tortured for attempting to escape. But even she can be rescued only by the singularly rebellious Django.

Black women on the plantation are simply subservient—as food servers, cooks, cotton-pickers, or whipping victims. Black women in the brothels, like Candie’s apparent mistress Sheba, seem to love their oppressor. The same is true of Coco, wearing a French maid’s mini-dress, high heels and a large white bow in the front of her hair, answering to the Southern aristocrats’ every whim. Tarantino fails to present any strong black woman.

Spoiler alert. At the end of the movie, after Django kills the remaining slave-owning family members and overseers, he and his wife ride into the moonlight from deep within Mississippi. This is at a time when the slavocracy was at the height of being alarmed and armed, the year that fear of slave rebellion was rampant among slave-owners throughout the South. This meant that in every Southern state, expansion of militias and arming of white communities was pervasive. Any black woman or black man openly traveling the roads in Mississippi, Texas, or the Border States at that time would have been arrested or killed.

Only the underground systems, created from plantation to plantation by slaves and free blacks, and supported by black and white abolitionists in the North, would have allowed Django and his wife to escape. Tarantino relies on the individual hero to replace a movement of resistance.

My fear is that Tarantino’s fetishes, stereotypes, and contempt for actual history will become nestled in the popular culture as a legitimate depiction of the Black Holocaust. We need representations not to be cartoonish, but complex and accurate.

Today’s young people need sophisticated analysis of slavery— and how its legacy is experienced in contemporary America, where more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850, and more African-American men are disenfranchised because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870.

In a time where activism and resistance to oppression is as essential as it was in 1859, the demand for justice and equality must find expression in schools. The work of social movements and the demands of the many must be heard. They were not in Django Unchained. In the course of creating a free and just world, historical truth must be woven into popular culture, into the school curriculum, and into the consciousness of young people.

January 27, 2013

Defend public schools, our children, our democracy

Filed under: Charter Schools,Milwaukee Succeeds,Vouchers — millerlf @ 8:51 pm
Jan. 26, 2013

This op-ed was submitted by 11 leaders of community and education organizations in Milwaukee.

We need communitywide discussion and action to protect the future of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

We welcome input from all who believe in and support quality public education for all children.

We represent thousands of parents, community members and educators who have been working – and will continue to work – to ensure that all children receive a first-class education comparable to anywhere else in the state.

A Jan. 20 Crossroads op-ed by the executive board of Milwaukee Succeeds highlights the need to secure a sound financial future for MPS and to develop guiding principles for educating all the children in this city.

The initiative, however, was noticeably and disturbingly top-down, developed behind closed doors. Does Milwaukee need yet another policy mandate with vague and arbitrary “guiding principles” that ignore Milwaukee’s hypersegregation, poverty and joblessness? That ignore the fundamental and inherent differences between public, voucher and charter schools?

Any discussion of the future of public education in this city requires input from all key stakeholders, in particular people who live in Milwaukee and people who are part of the MPS community, from staff to parents to students.

We believe that any set of guiding principles also must include the following:

All schools in Milwaukee that receive public funds must adhere to Wisconsin’s open meetings/open records laws to ensure full transparency and accountability. The public must have access to information such as the percentage of students in poverty, English language learners, special education students, suspensions, expulsions, teacher certification, content of curricula and so forth.

All schools in Milwaukee that receive public funds must respect the constitutional rights of students and staff (for example, rights of due process and freedom of speech). They also must adhere to state anti-discrimination laws in areas such as sexual orientation or pregnancy.

All schools in Milwaukee that receive public funds must respect the language needs of students and must adhere to federal and state protections for English language learners. In particular, we must maintain and develop strong bilingual programs for the city’s growing Latino community.

All schools in Milwaukee that receive public funds should serve all children, including children with disabilities. This also means they should accommodate the needs of all children with disabilities and not exclude, expel or counsel such children out of the school.

All children in Milwaukee deserve a rich curriculum, including a comprehensive academic program and art, music, physical education and access to school libraries.

We should establish a moratorium on new charter schools that are part of national franchises. Our precious educational dollars should be kept in the community, not sent out of state.

We must develop a regional discussion on hypersegregation in Milwaukee and how such hypersegregation negatively affects not only education but jobs, transportation, housing and health care.

For the past two decades, education reform in Milwaukee has been dominated by consumer-based, privatization initiatives. They have not worked. The Milwaukee Succeeds op-ed repackages school privatization as a call for a “unified education agenda.” But, at its heart, school privatization is a disservice to our children and our democracy.

We must improve our public schools. But we also must defend the constitutional right to a free, public education for all children. A truly public education means more than funneling tax dollars to private voucher schools and semiprivate charter schools that operate outside of expected norms of public oversight and accountability – and that undermine the very survival of MPS.

MPS is the only educational institution in this city that has the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all of Milwaukee’s children.

We look forward to conversations that include all the stakeholders in this community, that protect the rights of all and that recognize the inherent bond between strong public schools and a strong democracy.

This was submitted by Christopher Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin executive director; Jasmine Alinder, board president of Parents for Public Schools of Milwaukee; Tony Baez, Centro Hispano Milwaukee executive director; the Rev. Willie Brisco, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope president; James Hall, NAACP Milwaukee Branch president; Marva Herndon, chair of Women Committed to an Informed Community; Robert Kraig, Citizen Action of Wisconsin executive director; Larry Miller, Milwaukee School Board vice president; Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces de la Frontera executive director; Bob Peterson, Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association president; and Milwaukee School Board member Annie Woodward.


January 22, 2013

Oshkosh Newspaper Editorial Opposes Voucher Expansion

Filed under: Vouchers — millerlf @ 5:00 pm

Democracy in the way of vouchers

Jan 19, 2013   TheNorthWestern.Com Editorial (Oshkosh News)

Leave it to Sen. Mike Ellis to hit the nail on the head: The expansion of school vouchers is a non-starter in northeast Wisconsin. In our view, such is the case across Wisconsin. The Senate president, in typically blunt language, called last week for local referendum votes on any expansion of the state’s school voucher program outside of Milwaukee and Racine.

One can only hope his act of outspoken courage helps fuse the spine of fellow senators and pushes this partisan plum off the Republican agenda during biennium budget discussions. The school choice movement is little more than an employment agency for former Republican lawmakers who continue to push for taxpayers to foot the bill for private education. There is no evidence the voucher experiment in Milwaukee has produced results better than public schools.

Nor are voucher advocates prepared to suggest private schools operate under the same myriad of federal and state regulations Wisconsin’s public schools are required by law to follow. Private and religious school choice advocates would be wise to stop courting public dollars for they may ultimately find they get the dollars — and long strings attached. Parochial schools have long and proud traditions that will continue to flourish without the deep pockets and pages of requirements of public dollars.

Last session, school choice lobbyists used their influence with Rep. Robin Vos, who chaired the Joint Finance Committee, to insert language into the budget expanding the program to Racine, Green Bay and potential districts like Oshkosh. Ellis and other lawmakers pushed back hard to limit the expansion to Racine. No one bothered to tell Green Bay school officials, and it was never clear who was calling for vouchers in the city beyond the lobbyists.

With Vos now Assembly Speaker, expect the issue to be back on the agenda. But Ellis’ call certainly casts a light on an issue that is hardly on the top of anyone’s list of priorities. The state took positive steps last year toward making public schools more accountable through the introduction of tougher standards and statewide report cards. Lawmakers ought to put their energies into developing more accountable, flexible and adequately funded public schools. They should develop a bi-partisan plan to tackle the crisis in Milwaukee.

More importantly, they need to get back to their well-rehearsed call for a focus on the state’s economy. The only “jobs” connection evident is the ones for former Republican lawmakers. Former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who formed a lobbying firm after his loss in the GOP primary for U.S. senator last summer, registered as a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin earlier this month. He joins former Assembly Speakers John Gard and Scott Jensen in working on behalf of the industry. That gives vouchers a higher profile in the halls of power than in households across Wisconsin.

The Final Thought: School voucher expansion a non-issue for Wisconsin.

January 12, 2013

Racism in America Today

Filed under: Racism,School to Prison Pipeline — millerlf @ 5:00 pm

I recently read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It takes head-on the “elephant in the room” concerning race in America. I feel it is a must read for anyone interested in equality and social justice.

According to Alexander, more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system in the US than there were enslaved in 1850…and more African-American men are disenfranchised now because of felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870. She constructs a formidable argument that the “war on drugs,” declared in 1982, had every intention of creating a new form of discrimination largely against black men.

Alexander’s book establishes that the war on drugs is truly meant to reinstate legalized discrimination that marked this country’s history during slavery and Jim Crow. The outcome and intention of the war on drugs has been and continues to be the increased policing of black communities which leads to significantly more arrests of  African Americans than any other group in society. And if an African American is branded a felon, their rights return to the Jim Crow South.

Do more African-Americans go to jail more often because they commit more crimes? People of all races, use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. Yet the arrest and conviction of African-Americans is far greater than that of whites. An example of discriminatory policy can be seen with  the conviction rate and sentence length that is far greater for crack (a form of cocaine), used largely in black communities, than for pure cocaine, that is used largely in white communities.

Do we not believe in a second chance for someone who has been imprisoned? Are we forcing ex-offenders to return to crime or to live their life as a second-class citizen? Is the goal not for someone to become a productive citizen? Alexander establishes that ex-felons, who have done time and are off parole, are discriminated against in employment, housing, voting and other areas for life.

The war on drugs was declared in 1982 at a time when drug use in America was declining. The crack epidemic did not start until later in the 1980s. The war on drugs was not a response to the crack epidemic. Alexander proves that the war on drugs was part of a historic reoccurring pattern. The growth of black political power from the 1960s and 70s was pushed back with the policies of the war on drugs. Laws were changed to perpetuate white power in a new environment.

Slavery becomes reconstruction becomes Jim Crow becomes the civil rights movement becomes the era of mass incarceration – masked in the age of colorblindness.

When we see equal rates of drug use and distribution in black and white areas, while black communities are policed at higher rates than white communities, resulting in higher rates of arrests and incarceration for African Americans men it becomes  racialized social control which maintains the historic status quo.

The outcome, as expressed by the essayist and novelist Toure, is that African Americans remain America’s stigmatized class, which is used to separate African-Americans from poor and working-class whites, who will never see their interests as aligned and thus merge as a potentially unstoppable united force for demanding reform in economics in the legal system and the distribution of power and wealth. Instead, we have two America’s, separate and unequal.

January 8, 2013

How to Reform Milwaukee’s Schools by Diane Ravitch

Filed under: Borsuk,Charter Schools,Vouchers — millerlf @ 9:44 am

New post on Diane Ravitch’s blog

How to Reform Milwaukee’s Schools

by dianerav

Alan Borsuk is a knowledgeable journalist who has covered education in Milwaukee for many years. He is now professing at Marquette, but still keeps a close watch on what is happening to education in Milwaukee.

In this article, Borsuk says that a new vision is needed to get beyond the stale and failed answers of the past. He is right.

Milwaukee has had vouchers since 1990. longer than any school district in the nation. The students in the voucher schools perform no better than those in the public schools.

Milwaukee has had charter schools for about 20 years. The students in the charter schools do no better than those in the public schools.

As the other sectors have grown, the Milwaukee public schools have experienced sharply declining enrollment. At the same time, the number of students with disabilities is far greater in the public schools than in either the voucher or charter schools. The latter are unable or unwilling to take the children who are most challenging and most expensive to educate. Thus, Milwaukee public schools are “competing” with two sectors who skim off the ablest students and reject the ones they don’t want. Most people would say this is not a level playing field.

Governor Scott Walker’s answer to the Milwaukee problem is to call for more vouchers and charters, and for virtual charters. But if the students in those schools are not outperforming the ones in the public schools after twenty years, why should those sectors grow? And we know from multiple studies that students in virtual schools do worse than those in brick-and-mortar schools.

More of the same is no answer. Doubling down on failure is a bad bet.

Yes, Milwaukee needs a bold vision.

It needs a reset.

It needs one public education sector, not three competing sectors. The time for dual- and triple-systems should have ended in 1954, with the Brown decision.

Milwaukee needs one public school system that receives public dollars, public support, community engagement, and parental involvement.

Vouchers and charters had their chance. They failed.

Now it is time to build a great public school system that meets the needs of the children of Milwaukee.

the children need universal pre-kindergarten so that they arrive in school ready to learn. The children with high needs require small classes and extra attention. The public schools should provide a superb program in the arts for all children in every grade. They should have a rich curriculum–history, literature, foreign languages, the sciences, mathematics, and civics–for all children. Every student should have daily physical education. The schools should have the nurses, guidance counselors, social workers and librarians they need. Children should have after-school programs where they can learn new skills, strengthen their bodies, and get extra tutoring.

It is impossible to achieve these goals in a city with three competing school systems. It is entirely possible to achieve when there is one school system that becomes the focus of the energies of parents, civic leaders, and the business community.

Many children, one Milwaukee.

January 6, 2013

More On Rocketship Schools, by Barbara Miner

Filed under: Rocketship — millerlf @ 11:10 am

Do Milwaukee’s children deserve art and music classes?

By Barbara Miner Jan. 5, 2013 View from the Heartland MJS Blog

Do young children deserve art and music classes?

Or, instead of art and music, should kindergarten and first-graders spend two hours a day in Dilbert-like cubicles, keyboarding answers into computers while uncertified aides monitor the room and maintain order?

Such questions should be part of a much-needed public discussion on the City of Milwaukee’s expectations for its charter schools.

A PBS Learning Matters report on Dec. 29 provided a fascinating glimpse at the privately run Rocketship Education network of charter schools in California that, beginning next year, will be in Milwaukee. The show, which aired Dec. 29, is available online and is worth the nine minutes it takes to watch.

The PBS report looks at both strengths and weaknesses in the Rocketship approach and focuses on the Rocketship Mosaic school in San Jose, Calif. It begins by likening Rocketship’s business plan to Henry Ford and his mass-produced, assembly line Model T that became the “first innovative and affordable car available to the masses.” The show also has scenes of energized students, known as Rocketeers, chanting about their potential, and interviews with supportive parents and enthusiastic young teachers.

But the PBS story raises some tough questions — for instance the lack of art and music at Rocketship Mosaic, that the computer learning labs aren’t working as planned, and that half the teachers have less than two years’ experience.

In November 2011, the Milwaukee Common Council approved Rocketship to open its first city charter school in September 2013, enrolling 480 students the first year and to be known as Rocketship Milwaukee. The Council also gave Rocketship Milwaukee an unprecedented go-ahead to grow to eight schools and 4,000 students — even though Rocketship has yet to demonstrate that even one of its schools here will live up to its marketing promises.

Rocketship, which started in 2006 and runs seven schools in California, has national ambitions to reach 50 cities and one million students. Powerful movers and shakers, including Mayor Tom Barrett, wooed Rocketship to Milwaukee. With a business approach not unlike that of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, national franchises such as Rocketship develop a uniform, cost-efficient product that can be marketed and replicated nationwide, especially to cash-strapped urban districts.

Rocketship is focused on working with low-income students to raise test scores; its background is with Latino students. Attempts to open schools in Oakland, Calif., and East Palo Alto were rejected when critics said the franchise lacked experience educating African American children. A July 29 report in the Washington Post also noted that about six percent of Rocketship’s students are classified as having learning disabilities — “about half the rate found in the surrounding traditional public schools.”

Rocketship has limited its efforts to kindergarten to fifth-grade schools, and has not ventured into the more troubled (and more expensive) educational waters of middle and high schools.

One of Rocketship’s biggest selling points has been its “learning labs” —a computer-room where students sit in individual cubicles and the computer substitutes for traditional classroom interaction between students and teacher. The computer labs are promoted as a digital-era innovation of “blended learning” that will spur academic achievement. The Scholastic Administrator magazine describes the learning lab as “the financial and academic key to Rocketship’s ambitious mission.”

But that key may be broken.

“The learning lab saves schools a lot of money,” Merrow notes in his report, “but there’s just one problem: They’re not really working.”

A Rocketship teacher, for instance, notes that the learning labs don’t provide information that teachers can then use in the classroom. “A problem we saw,” Merrow adds, “is that some students in the lab do not appear to be engaged. They sit at their computers for long periods of time, seemingly just guessing.”

The problems are such that the school may drop its learning labs, the principal tells PBS.

The learning lab has been key to the Rocketship model because it allows a school of roughly 500 students to hire six fewer teachers and save money to put into other areas, such as a longer day and teacher training.

That saved money, however, is not necessarily used to provide an enriched curriculum.

“One thing the savings are not used for: art and music classes,” Merrow reports.

Merrow also notes that more than 75% of the teachers at Rocketship Mosaic come from Teach for America (TFA), which recruits college graduates, trains them during the summer and then sends them to urban schools. The problem? Studies have repeatedly shown that experienced, quality teachers are one of the best guarantees of academic improvement. Relying on TFA, which only requires a two-year commitment, also means that staff turnover will likely be high. (John Danner, the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded Rocketship, is philosophically opposed to unions.)

Interestingly, all the teachers shown in the PBS special were white, and all the students were Latino. PBS did not mention, but it is well known, that Rocketship does not believe in bilingual education for its Spanish-speaking students and has adopted an “English-only” approach. It promises to follow federal and state laws regarding services for “English Language Learners,” but that is a far cry from supporting students in both languages so that they enjoy the academic, personal and economic benefits of being truly bilingual.

The Rocketship model raises a number of questions which merit public discussion about the city’s expectations for its charter schools. Does the public support the view that schools, as part of a deliberate education strategy, should forego art and music classes? Is it good education policy to rely on inexperienced teaches? Is it sound education practice to put five- and six-year-old children in front of a computer for two hours straight during the school day?

Perhaps most important, why is Milwaukee’s Common Council in the business of overseeing schools in the first place?

The questions are particularly important given the proliferation of privately run charter schools approved by the Common Council.

Charter schools have their roots among progressive educators in the 1990s who wanted charter contracts with school districts so they could operate outside the bureaucracy and experiment. The goal was to improve academic achievement, strengthen the connections between school and community, and use the lessons learned to improve all the schools in a district.

Some charter schools still uphold those values. But in recent years, the charter movement has become the darling of hedge-fund managers and marketplace entrepreneurs who view parents as consumers, not deciders, and who chafe at public control. Such forces are driving the charter school movement’s dominant agenda of promoting privately run, franchise charters that operate outside the supervision of democratically elected school boards.

Leading business people have been a guiding force behind Rocketship’s entry into Milwaukee, in particular Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Michael Grebe of the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Sheehy visited Rocketship and spearheaded efforts to raise $3.5 million in additional funding that Rocketship said was necessary.

Rocketship has worthy aspects, for instance its administrative support for teachers. But I’m always nervous when hoped-for education miracles are first tested on poor children in Milwaukee.

If these charter franchise schools are so great, why aren’t the Whitefish Bay or the Lake Country school districts clamoring for Rocketship?

Imagine if Tim Sheehy were to tell his neighbors in Whitefish Bay that he wanted to raise $3.5 million to bring in a California-based outfit to compete with and take money away from the Whitefish Bay schools, that these privately run schools would not provide art and music, that kindergarten children would be put in front of Dilbert-like cubicles for two hours a day, and that the board of directors would be dominated by people who did not live in the community? What do you think the response in Whitefish Bay might be?

If I had to put any money on it, Whitefish Bay parents would echo the thoughts of Diane Ravitch, Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. “These are schools for poor children,” she wrote in a blog titled “Rocketship to Nowhere,” where she summarized her impression after watching the Merrow show. “Not many advantaged parents would want their children in this bare-bones Model-T school. It appears that these children are being trained to work on an assembly line. There is no suggestion that they are challenged to think or question or wonder or create.”

The MMAC’s Sheehy is not the only influential businessman promoting Rocketship Milwaukee.

The Bradley Foundation, which is a strong proponent of both voucher schools and privately run charter schools, granted Rocketship Milwaukee $375,000 last year. The ideologically conservative foundation also gave $3 million to the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund, a venture capital initiative that — surprise! — has given money to Rocketship.

Michael Grebe, head of the Bradley Foundation, is on the board of directors of the Charter School Growth Fund. (In Wisconsin, Grebe is better known as the chair of Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.) Sheehy, meanwhile, is chair of the board of directors for Rocketship Milwaukee.

Another prominent local person involved with Rocketship is Deborah McGriff, the staff person at the California-based NewSchools Venture Fund that has invested $1.18 million in Rocketship. (The Fund promotes “entrepreneurial organizations” and is yet another indication of how the private sector believes there is money to be made in charter schools.) McGriff is married to Howard Fuller, who founded and directs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, which oversees the City of Milwaukee charter school initiative. Until recently, Fuller personally chaired the city’s charter school process. Last year, the Bradley Foundation gave $50,000 to the Institute to support the approval process for city charters — on top of $875,000 in funding to the Institute in the previous four years.

McGriff and Fuller, meanwhile, are two of the three members of the board of directors of the Quest schools, another privately run charter initiative approved by the City of Milwaukee.

If it all sounds a bit too cozy and ingrown, well perhaps it is.

A few key people are calling the behind-the-scene shots for City of Milwaukee charters, and even many aldermen have little idea what’s going on in these city-approved schools. Several alderpeople have begun asking questions, in particular Robert Bauman, Tony Zielinski, Nik Kovac and Jose Perez. But by and large the council has rubber-stamped the decisions by Fuller’s Institute, providing a fig leaf of public oversight.
It’s enlightening to look at the last big school reform pushed by Fuller, the MMAC, and the Bradley Foundation.

All three have been key forces behind the voucher movement, under which tax dollars are funneled out of public education and into private schools. Using the seductive rhetoric of ‘choice,” vouchers began in 1990 and were supposed to usher in a golden era of educational achievement in Milwaukee.

The voucher movement reflected a virtual wish list of conservative, free-market reforms: no unions, no central bureaucracy, minimal government oversight, the ability to hire and fire teachers at will, and wide latitude to institute just about any innovation desired, from the length of the school day to curricular reform.

But the voucher movement’s rhetoric crashed on the rocks of reality. In 2010, for the first time the voucher schools were required to take the same tests as public schools and the test scores were released publicly. The results? The voucher schools scored about the same in reading as comparable MPS students, and worse in math.

Substitute “charters” for “vouchers” and this troika of the MMAC, Bradley and Fuller is up to the same old same old. There’s little to indicate the results will be significantly different — and everything to indicate that the major consequence may be even more public dollars flowing into privately run schools, with the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) left to pick up the pieces when a charter school fails or expels an unwanted student. (Charter school expulsions are one of many issues that need to be addressed. The city charter high school CEO Leadership Academy, for instance, expelled roughly 16% of its students last year, according to a performance reviewed submitted to the Common Council. The review also notes that the academy’s test results were far below scores for low-income students in MPS. Fuller helped found the school in 2003, and until 2011 the academy was a voucher school; Fuller remains chair of its board of directors.)

MPS, for all its shortcomings, problems, and challenges, remains the only institution in this city with the capability, commitment and legal obligation to serve all children. We abandon it at a peril not just to democracy and public control of public institutions, but at peril to our moral obligation to provide a quality education to all the children in the City of Milwaukee.

At the very least, we need to ask ourselves: do the children of Milwaukee deserve art and music classes?

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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, you can also sign up for email notifications.

January 5, 2013

Rocketship Schools Coming Soon to an Urban Area Near You

Filed under: Rocketship — millerlf @ 12:27 pm

Rocketship Plans to Build an Education Empire According to a December 28, PBS NewsHour Report (See Link below.)

In a 9 minute TV PBS NewsHour report Rocketship  CEO John Danner stated that Rocketship Education’s  goal is for a million students to be attending their schools. This would be over 1600 schools nationally. If they contract the same lucrative deal that the City of  Milwaukee gave them , sending $600,000 annually back to national headquarters in San Jose, this will be nearly $1 billion profit annually  for Rocketship Education. Short-term they want 46 schools up and running in five years, eventually growing to 50 cities.

Rocketship clearly strives to be the largest chartering management organization in America. But with this aggressive expansion comes an increase in scrutiny. I have written about 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose raising what I consider serious issues. The NewsHour report adds to my trepidation, especially as they plan to flood the education market with their brand.

Questionable practices

  • Their main source for teachers is Teach For America, that is, uncertified teachers that enter the classroom with only 6-weeks of training. 75% of their teachers are from Teach For America.
  • Rocketship schools are also founded on use of “learning labs.” Learning labs are staffed by hourly employees who, as the report notes, “…lack teaching credentials.” Rocketship says that the “learning labs” save enough money for each school to hire 6 fewer teachers yearly, saving up to half a million dollars a year. The problem admitted in the PBS report is that the “learning labs” don’t work, even though students spend 25% of their day in the lab, sitting in front of computers. (See report below.) Yet Rocketship’s “success”, as claimed on their web site, is because “Rocketship has a very innovative instructional model that utilizes the Learning Lab as a place for students to master basic math and reading skills.
  • Rocketship does not offer arts or music in its curriculum.
  • Disturbing data from 3 of their “model” schools in San Jose data shows the low enrollment of special education students (They admit to 5% special education student enrollment.) While the San Jose school district has a special education population of more than 12%, the Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy has only 14 special education students total. Its sister school, Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Elementary, serves only 15 special education students out of a total of 270 students. The newest school, Rocketship Los Suenos Academy, serves only 11 special education students. Keeping the number of special education students below 20, as shown in all three schools, means that special education is not considered as a subgroup required to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind.
  • In the selection of students Rocketship operates charters that enroll students via application. Therefore, it necessarily follows that the Rocketship will enroll a different mix of students than the low-SES-area neighborhood public schools.  As one observer stated, “If Rocketship thinks it has discovered the secret to effectively educating low-SES-area students, let Rocketship take over a low-SES-area neighborhood school — enrolling all the neighborhood school children and only the neighborhood school children — and let’s see how Rocketship’s model works when Rocketship has the same students as the neighborhood public school.”

To see the PBS report, go to:

Below is a transcript of the PBS, NewsHour report:


Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Which Is It? Centralization or Decentralization

Filed under: MPS — millerlf @ 11:02 am

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute recently issued a report on MPS policies and practices. It was followed by an op-ed piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by its President, George Lightbourn. Their conclusion about “decentralization” seems to be a reversal from a previous report from 2007.

From the WPRI opinion piece in the Journal Sentinel January 3rd, 2013:

“Move more responsibility out of central administration to the individual schools. Give teachers more say in choosing the curriculum they teach and the training they receive. Wasted dollars will melt away.”

From a June, 2007 report issued by WPRI:

“We need a better understanding of what factors may be most influential in the low scores that have been commonplace in MPS. The new report cites the decentralization of authority as a contributor to no steady gains.”

MPS Needs a New Backbone

The Achievement Gap in Milwaukee Public Schools: Outcomes by Gender, Race, and Income Level – June, 2007


Will Wisconsin Republicans Increase Education Funding?

Filed under: Public Education — millerlf @ 10:43 am

The Capital Times January 3, 2013

The same discord over taxes that we see among Republicans in Congress is
taking place in the Wisconsin Legislature.
On Wednesday morning I wrote that some moderates in the state Senate,
such as Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, are suggesting the Legislature
authorize increased spending on K-12 education at the local level by
allowing school districts to increase property taxes.

Olsen’s idea is to restore some of the cuts made in the last legislative
session, when Republicans imposed a 5.5 percent decrease (or roughly
$250 per student) in the revenue limits for school districts. Olsen
would like to raise the limits by roughly $200 – nearly restoring the
pre-Walker levels.

That was apparently news to Rep. Steve Nass, R-Town of La Grange, who
lashed out later Wednesday in a press release to Assembly Republican
leadership after reading the article.

“The last time the Assembly Republican majority failed to stop tax
increases was 2007,” he warns. “The voters punished that failure on
taxes by giving us the minority status after the 2008 election.”

Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen says any suggestion that property taxes
could go up sends the wrong message to taxpayers, as well as to school

“Statements like Luther’s are taken very seriously by school district
administrators,” he says. “That $200 figure is now a target that every
school administrator is going to be shooting for. That’s the problem, it
builds up hope.”

A spokesperson for Olsen said the senator had no comment in response.

Although some insiders shrugged off Nass’ outburst (he’s gained a
reputation for inflammatory statements), they acknowledge it represents
a contentious debate that will likely take place within the GOP caucus
over spending in the coming months. While many Republicans say they will
support increased state spending on education, many of the most fiscally
conservative members bristle at suggestions that school districts need
the ability to raise more money.

“The (revenue limits) were put in pretty tight but we gave them other
tools to use,” says Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, referring to the
near-elimination of collective bargaining for school district employees,
as well as mandates that employees pick up a larger share of their
health insurance and pension.

Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee
with Strachota, echoed that logic.

“Districts are creatively implementing changes that will help them keep
costs under control,” he wrote in an email. “I would be surprised to see
a return to large annual increases in the revenue limit for all

Incoming state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, says she hopes both
parties can get behind increased funding for schools. She is
nevertheless skeptical.

“It’s hard to move forward on addressing it when so many Republicans
have taken pledges not to raise taxes,” she says.

It does not appear leadership has taken a position on revenue limits.

“At this juncture, it isn’t beneficial to the process to get into
hypotheticals,” says Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader
Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. “We’ll get a better view of the landscape
when Governor Walker presents his budget proposal in February.”

January 3, 2013

Charter Chain (Noble Network of Charters) Profits from Student “Misbehavior”

Filed under: Charter Schools — millerlf @ 10:50 am
Policy Not So Noble
January 2, 2013  | By Ted Cox, DNAinfo Reporter/Producer
Marsha GodardMarsha Godard, a Chicago Bulls College Prep parent and member of the Action Now community group, said the school’s disciplinary policies are driving her “crazy and bankrupt.”(DNAinfo/Ted Cox)

CHICAGO — Some of the city’s top charter schools are ringing up fines for disciplinary infractions even as they’re racking up large increases in public funding.

Marsha Godard, a parent at Chicago Bulls College Prep, says she has paid close to $2,000 in fines and fees to keep her son in class at the West Side school.

“Education is free,” Godard, a member of the Action Now community group, said at a Board of Education meeting last month. “They’re only in it for the money.”

Opened three years ago and about to graduate its first senior class in the spring, Chicago Bulls College Prep is actually a member of the nonprofit Noble Network of Charter Schools, which operates a dozen schools serving 7,900 students across the city.

The Noble schools have said their disciplinary policies contribute to 90 percent of their students going on to college. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has praised the schools, saying they have the “secret sauce” to academic achievement.

“We do charge a fee when students get a detention,” said Angela Montagna, spokeswoman for Noble. “It’s a $5 fee, a disciplinary fee, and that goes to offset the cost of administering the discipline.”

Godard said her son, Tavonta Gray, 16, had been suspended 15 times. Held back as a freshman last year, he was required to take a summer behavioral session in order to return this year — at a cost of $1,400. Godard estimated he has also rung up about $300 in fines this year along with additional ones last year.

“I’m trying to look for another school for next year,” she said. “That school’s not working for him.”

And her son is not alone, she insisted. Dropping him off for detention one recent Friday, she estimated she saw hundreds of kids in line.

“Each child represents money,” Godard said. “I was just floored when I saw that.”

Noble charters have received steep funding increases from the Chicago Public Schools. According to the CPS 2013 budget, Chicago Bulls College Prep will receive $9 million next year, up more than 30 percent from $6.9 million this year. Montagna said that’s based on a per-student formula and reflects higher enrollment.

Tavonta GrayTavonta Gray has been suspended 15 times at Chicago Bulls College Prep, according to his mother.(Marsha Godard)

According to the most recent government nonprofit filings, Noble schools took in $52.6 million in government grants in 2011, the lion’s share from CPS. CPS budgeted Noble schools for $62.2 million this year, and $69.9 million next year.

Ten of the 12 Noble schools received funding increases in the 2013 CPS budget, a rate far higher than for other schools, many of which suffered cuts. Again, Montagna said that was based on their success in recruiting students and their fixed per-student allocation.

Godard said her son’s offenses have included having shoes untied, buttons unbuttoned on his polo shirt and failing to keep eyes focused on the teacher — all at three demerits apiece.

“Enforcement of these policies will drive me crazy and bankrupt,” she added.

Noble claims that 89 percent of its students are low-income, which makes the fines additionally painful, but Montagna insisted the fines produce results.

“It engages parents,” she said. “When it’s in their pocketbook, they’re much more involved.

“It changes behavior,” Montagna added. “So what we see over a student’s four years is that the vast majority of detentions … about 80 percent of all detentions are given to freshmen, and then it goes down after that, where seniors are getting virtually none.”

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