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Maggie Smith & Leland Pan: The Relationship Between Race and School Board Races

Maggie Smith and Leland Pan

Y’all are about to have some contentious school board races, Madison. We’re not interested in stepping into messy political games, but Madison’s school board races have a history of getting ugly – in particular, as it relates to race and class. The political process should have some fire and passion, but too often, the debates are focused on the interpersonal and the petty, rather than real, honest policy and ideology discussions.

Madison’s school board races have a history to be between a candidate of color and a white candidate. This year is no different, with multiple people of multiple identities and ideologies running in every seat. We should be celebrating this wide variety of candidates, but past tensions relating to race are likely to haunt this current election.

We must do a better job of discussing which policies are truly effective in closing our racial disparities and then identifying the candidates that fit those policies, rather than assuming the identities of the candidates and their endorsements will tell us the full picture. A white candidate with progressive endorsements does not automatically mean their opponent of color isn’t an advocate for progressive policies. Even when it is true, white progressives often forget they need to actually prove progressive policies are the right course of action as it relates to racial justice; if a candidate of color is advocating a more conservative platform, you don’t question that candidate’s commitment to racial justice, you demonstrate why your policies are better. On the other hand, a candidate of color is not automatically a better advocate for concrete policies that advance racial justice than their white counterpart. That assumption reduces candidates of color to their identities and doesn’t recognize that candidates of color are, ideologically, just as diverse as white candidates!

Almost all our schools in this country are failing young people of color at extraordinarily disparate rates. Especially African Americans. Especially in Wisconsin. Especially in both Madison and Milwaukee. We do not need to re-recite these disparity numbers. You can read the countless reports, news articles, and opinion pieces highlighting them. This applies to graduation, advanced class placement, college admittance, discipline, and every other measurable outcome over which a school has influence. So, the standard for your candidates for school board has to be high.

In the process of choosing a candidate, learn from Milwaukee. Milwaukee was infamously known as the “Selma of the North” for its segregation, both in housing and schools. The fight for school desegregation was fierce and never truly met its goals (activists saw the expansion of the suburbs and demanded a metropolitan area desegregation plan that was never realized), but even more disturbing is the continued dismantling of integration to this day. When schools desegregated, what you saw was white flight. After there was a desegregation settlement in the 1970s, one-third of non-black children four years or younger in 1975 had left the city by 1985. The percentage of white elementary students in private schools doubled in that time frame.

In 1985, half of white elementary students in Milwaukee attended private schools, compared to 6 percent of nonwhite elementary students. Frankly, in theory, you could have a great school without white people, but in practice, we know this separate but equal never works out. Resources followed white people out of the public school system, and Black and Latino students were left behind in underfunded schools. In 1981, when Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was roughly equally black and white, Milwaukee’s “shared costs per pupil” were $127 below the suburban average. By 1998, MPS had $1,254 less than the suburban average per student. In 2014, if Nicolet’s revenue limit per pupil ($17,794 per pupil compared to MPS’s $10,261) was applied to Milwaukee, MPS would be given $626.5 million more dollars by the state. This re-entrenchment of segregation and disregard of Black and Brown schools continues; in 2015, the state government phased out Chapter 220, a voluntary integration program.

Milwaukee’s public schools never truly did justice for these students of color at any point in its history. Community members of color in Milwaukee were, and are, deeply frustrated with Milwaukee Public Schools’ failings that have lasted for nearly a century, including most recently having to reach a settlement with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for discrimination in discipline against Black students. Frustration at the failings of public schools meant when conservative think tanks and philanthropies like the Bradley Foundation pushed for charter and voucher schools, they could tap into that anger to gain support from some people of color. The voucher system, where public money can follow a student to private schools, was seen by some as an opportunity to get children left behind by public schools into schools that would better serve them (despite vouchers’ racist origins). Some Black proponents saw this as an opportunity to make schools by the Black community and for Black students.

This attitude is, morally, completely and utterly justified. All parents are seeking the best possible outcomes for their children; all you have to do is look at our Black graduation rate to sympathize with the mentality that “hey, we can do it better without this white-run bureaucracy.” Public schools, with their school board system and regulations, often feel sluggish and unresponsive to change. The institutional history of white leadership means a lack of understanding of cultural norms, historical oppression, and structural barriers that communities of color experience.

However, what actually happened when these systems were implemented in Milwaukee was an even further acceleration of flight of those with resources out of the public school system. When vouchers were expanded in 2006, 60 percent of new voucher students already attended private school. Research has highlighted vouchers as promoting segregation rather than decreasing it, all with the side effect of de-funding traditional public schools. Some charter and private schools individually have had success, but there is little accountability, essentially no special education accommodation, and no change in success for Black students and other non-white students overall. Behaviors that signify more need for support, such as disruption or poor grades, could lead to kicking out a student instead of addressing the need. Traditional public schools have no such luxury – so, turns out de-funding public schools in favor of charter and private schools only furthers the lack of support for the Black students most hard done by. Private and charter schools that disproportionately serve more socioeconomically privileged students of color can hardly claim to be champions of racial justice. Additionally, private school staff are, overall, whiter than public schools. Charter schools have had slightly more success than traditional public schools in hiring teachers of color, but their lack of pay and workplace rights for teachers is unfair to one of the most important professions in our communities (not to mention awful for retention).

There is a very real problem in the lack of diversity among teachers. Eleven percent of Milwaukee Public Schools in 2017-2018 were white, but 70 percent of the teachers were white. Madison has similar disparities. That isn’t to say white teachers can’t be great teachers to students of color, but when the totality of a non-white student’s experience is generally to have white people in authority positions, there is plenty of documented negative outcomes for the student.

While charter and voucher schools may feel like the flexibility they have in hiring outside of traditional requirements may allow for increased diversity, the true outcome of this flexibility is a lack of workplace rights and low pay for teachers. As the saying goes, a teacher’s workplace environment is your child’s learning environment. The reduction of workplace rights with Scott Walker’s Act 10 legislation, for instance, led to a reduction in teacher diversity. Milwaukee Public Schools often pay up to $10,000 more a year for a new teacher than their charter and private counterparts. Hiring teachers of color just to pay them poverty wages will not diversify the profession in the long-term; diversifying teachers means addressing structural barriers people of color disproportionately face, such as the cost of a college education. Expecting to hire and retain a person of color at $33,000 a year while they have $40,000 of student loan debt is absurd.

All of this isn’t to fault any Black Milwaukee parent who chooses to place their student outside of public schools. Now that policymakers have tried so hard to break the public school system, can you blame an individual parent for trying to place their child in a school that isn’t labeled as failing? Madison is not this far down the road, but this political fight has been boiling under the surface. Madison needs to be ready to make the right call.

This historical context is to address a nuance that is also lacking in Madison’s previous school board races. The data and research is clear: defending public schools and teachers’ protections is of utmost importance, including for racial justice. The data is also clear: public schools have been and are continuing to fail students of color. This means candidates of color, whatever their personal stance, often have an ambivalence towards public schools and an understanding of community members who do not trust the public school system. In evaluating candidates, especially candidates of color, white progressives must not make the mistake of alienating potential allies by assuming this nuance is a lack of support for public schools. If a candidate of color is supportive of an expansion of charter or even voucher schools, arguments against said candidate must be rooted in racial justice. Maligning a candidate as a corporate tool or funded by conservative interests dismisses the very real concerns people of color have about public school outcomes. Questioning a candidate of color’s motivations and personal commitment to justice, whatever their ideology, is usually racist. A candidate can be committed to racial justice and have a platform in which we disagree with in achieving racial justice – this sort of nuance can help prevent the racial tensions that have scarred Milwaukee Public Schools and previous Madison races.

When white defendants of the public school system argue that funding is needed to protect (white) staff members from a new generation of “violent” or “unmotivated” youth, what they’re saying is that they don’t know how to work with an increasingly diverse student body. When a parent of color reads that, are you surprised if they believe the solution for their young one lies outside of the public school system? Calls for a diversity of teachers or for an easier entrance into the teaching profession for people from socioeconomically and racially disadvantaged backgrounds are not intended to “de-professionalize” teachers or attack teacher unions, they are there because there are too many barriers for excellent would-be teachers that can empathize with a greater diversity of students. In fact, as stated earlier, teacher protections are critical for racial justice, and teacher union advocates should frame their arguments accordingly. Charter and voucher schools are generally not unionized, and that often means no protection for teachers who push the boundaries on curriculum in ways that validate students of color.

School board candidates must craft their argument for public schools in ways that empathize, appreciate, and support parents of color who have doubts about schools’ treatment of their children. They must be explicit and clear in both their statement of opposition against privatization and their statement in support of students of color. They must be committed to students who would often be left behind by private and charter schools, such as those with special education needs and disabilities. They must defend and expand teachers’ rights, and by extension, their unions. Campaigns led by residents and students of color, like the one championed by Freedom, Inc. to remove police from schools, must be taken seriously.

Speaking of Freedom, Inc.’s campaign, traditional public schools are unique in their accountability to the public (it’s in the name: PUBLIC school!). Private and charter schools are not held in check by elected representatives. School board members, then, are the community’s advocates. They cannot shy away from a fight with school administration. They cannot be hoodwinked by leaders who can say the right things but continue to fail students of color. Madison’s school board members must learn to fight for public school support through the lens of revolutionizing the school system in favor of its students of color, especially its Black students. They must listen to community advocacy like that by Freedom, Inc., take it seriously, and move that conversation forward. Some school board members have taken a first step in this advocacy by creating an ad-hoc committee to review the Educational Resource Officer program. Fighting for accountability from the police, regardless of who it pisses off, is a job only school board members can fulfill completely.

Prospective school board members must recognize the public school system as it is currently structured is anti-poor and anti-Black. MMSD is too focused on punishment and policing with little regard for the structural causes of its perceived safety issues. The willingness to push for transparency on the school board for the sake of the community, accountability of administrators like the Superintendent, and overhauling the schools to serve those too long left behind is what is required from school board members.

This task is one that can be led by both white and non-white candidates – it is the substance of their understanding and their commitment to the right ideals that matter. As seen in Milwaukee, some advocates of color have, despite good intentions and often in reaction to racist public school advocates, undermined public schools. At the same time, white defendants of public schools have often alienated communities of color. We need candidates that will do neither, but will fight for the people Madison has too often ignored without losing faith in the public school system.

Maggie Smith is a Madison native and West High alumn who currently works as a School Social Worker and Counselor at Wauwatosa Public Schools and is also a proud union member in the Wauwatosa Education Association. Leland Pan is a former Dane County Board Supervisor who received his Master of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This opinion column reflects the views of its authors and not necessarily those of 365 Media Foundation, its staff, advertisers, funders or board of directors.