By Gordon Lafer May 10, 2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sixty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. The ruling rejected the concept of separate schools for students of different races and demanded true equal opportunity in education for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or income.
Since then, Milwaukee and many other cities have searched for ways to achieve that goal. Along the way, we have learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t.
Twenty-five years ago, for example, Milwaukee was told that education vouchers — public funds that could be used for students to attend private schools — would close the gaps in education achievement. Last year, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a corporate-funded think tank that had promoted vouchers, issued a report admitting that they didn’t work. Then the report insisted that we should trust the newest idea on the corporate agenda: privately run charter schools that replace teachers with computers.
This model is embodied in Milwaukee by the Rocketship chain of schools, and it is part of a corporate education agenda that is being pushed across the country. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is promoting Rocketship schools here, and MMAC President Tim Sheehy sits on the Rocketship board of directors.
Rocketship relies on inexperienced teachers, almost one-third of whom quit last year. It saves money by having students as young as kindergarten spend one-quarter of their day in front of a computer screen with no licensed teacher present. It offers no library or librarians, no music classes, no guidance counselors and no foreign languages.
In short, it’s a model that no suburban parents would accept for their own children — and indeed Rocketship is only being promoted as an option for children who live in poor cities. Hardly what the Supreme Court had in mind.
After 25 years of so-called reform efforts, Milwaukeeans have seen through the smoke and mirrors: The WPRI report on vouchers acknowledged that the public doesn’t support the Rocketship model.
Parents know that smaller classes mean more individual attention for every student, which is why Wisconsin created the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program in 1995. SAGE provides funding for low-income schools to limit class sizes in the early grades, but the funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation or need. Instead of looking to replace teachers with computers, lawmakers should adjust SAGE funding so every eligible school could limit class sizes.
Students need more personal attention from experienced teachers. They also need the kind of opportunities that are found at Wisconsin’s 10 highest-rated elementary schools: a broad curriculum including music classes, libraries and librarians, foreign languages, experienced teaching staff, small student-teacher ratios and support services such as guidance counselors or school psychologists. Good luck finding these things at a Rocketship school.
Milwaukee parents don’t just deserve a choice; they deserve high-quality choices. If the model being proposed for poor kids in Milwaukee is considered unacceptable by privileged parents in the suburbs, it can’t be the solution.
Gordon Lafer is an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center and a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as senior policy adviser for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor.