HALL MONITOR — Election results endanger MPS

December 1, 2016

By Jay Bullock

Jay1headshotThe last month or so has been a bit of a roller coaster.

It started well, with a bold initiative put forth by the Milwaukee Public Schools to capitalize on its recent successes. The plan would not only revise the district’s calendar and school uniform policies but also give MPS sole oversight of all charter schools in the city.

The month ended with the election of an expanded anti-public schools majority in the state Legislature and Donald Trump as president.

The election results will almost certainly quash the great bulk of the district’s plan, as all proposed changes except school uniforms would require approval from a state Legislature more hostile to Milwaukee and MPS than ever before. And it’s not just these proposed changes that are under threat; it’s the ability of MPS and other districts in the state that serve disadvantaged students to do their job well.

First, there’s what might happen at the federal level in the Trump administration. In a campaign filled with emails, rape culture, and other non-issue issues, education never managed to make it to the front pages. It barely even managed to make it to the debates, let alone the candidates’ stump speeches. But from the Trump statements available, he seems to hold fairly commonplace Republican ideas about schooling, mostly centered around increasing “competition” through expanded private school vouchers and more public charter schools, and letting banks skim interest off student loans again.

Early in the transition, there was speculation Trump would appoint former primary opponent, prominent neurosurgeon, and weirdo, Ben Carson as Secretary of Education. As I write, there’s talk that it may be the noted union-buster Michelle Rhee. As bad as it would be for Trump to appoint a Carson, Rhee, or someone similar, that’s not the worst-case scenario.

Worst case, Trump and Republicans in Congress finally make good on their long-threatened elimination of the Department of Education altogether. That would be devastating.

DOE has an $89 billion budget, according to its published data, which covers everything from grants and loans for college students to Title I funds directed to high-poverty K-12 schools. If DOE is abolished, it’s likely that funding overall would be reduced and much of what remains will be given to states in block grants rather than being given directly to needy schools and students.

MPS receives more than $200 million annually in federal funding, more than one-sixth of its overall budget. Almost half of that is Title I funding. More than four of every five MPS students live in poverty. Any reduction in that number, either through federal cuts or withholding of newly block-granted funds by state legislators, would have a dramatic and lasting impact on the ability of our public schools to adequately teach the neediest children.

At the state level, anti-MPS legislators will certainly be emboldened to take bigger, more dangerous swipes at the state’s largest school district. Because of the way the state calculates its district report cards, and with some help from gains in MPS student achievement, the district has avoided what would have been a deathblow. Legislators had put in place provisions that would have stripped MPS of students, property, and funding, and giving those assets wholesale to private operators.

So what might await us in the next budget? If legislators’ public statements are to be believed, it could be anything from that same privatization plan, rewritten to apply to MPS — despite its improved status, to a total break-up of the system into smaller, easier-to-destroy pieces.

There is no firewall, no remaining line of defense. The Legislature’s Democrats and moderate Republicans could not stop anti-MPS legislation two years ago, and last month’s elections pulled the Legislature further from moderation, removing any hope that common sense support for Milwaukee children and schools will prevail.

So if the last month was a roller coaster of ups and (mostly) downs, brace yourselves. The big drop is coming—and it will not end well for us.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School, hates roller coasters, and tweets as @folkbum.

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