By LaKeshia Myers
As we gear up for spring election season, it should not be lost on us what is actually at stake. On the spring ballot, after you have cast your vote for county executive, county supervisor, school board members and mayor, a question will appear that asks whether or not you would support a tax-based increase for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). I know how I plan to vote–I plan on voting yes–but do you?
While scrolling through my timeline on social media, I have seen members of the public sharing their opinions about the Milwaukee Public Schools referendum. Some have questioned why a referendum is needed, others have championed the referendum and expressed their plans to support it, while others have espoused the notion that MPS “doesn’t deserve” an increase from property owners. If you are a regular reader of this column or a listener to local talk radio you will know that at my core I am a teacher and I believe this is as good a time as any to educate the general public about my decision to “say ‘yes’ to MPS”.
First, Milwaukee Public Schools is the largest school district in our state. Having been established in 1846, it is also one of the oldest school districts; predating Wisconsin’s statehood in 1848. Currently serving over 75,000 students and employing nearly 10,000 staff members, it is one of the Milwaukee’s largest employers. As one of the largest employers, the district provides family supporting wages to its employees, as budget cuts have persisted over the last decade this has meant the district has had to consistently do more with less. This has translated into mass layoffs at the beginning of the last decade, rising class sizes, and employee hiring and salary freezes. While this was due primarily to steep cuts in the state’s education budget the effects still resound in classrooms today. It is not uncommon for students at all levels (but especially those in middle and high school where content-specific licensure is required) to experience a revolving door of substitute teachers or for principals to have multiple long-term substitutes serving in classrooms. This need is exacerbated at many central city schools where lower income families tend to live.
Having been an educator in MPS, as well as an education policy junkie I understand the trends that contribute to situations like these. The general public must understand that the enrollment of students in undergraduate teacher education has continually declined. According to the Center for American Progress, “Since 2010, total enrollment nationwide in teacher preparation programs has declined by more than one-third; this decline has occurred in the context of increasing enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs nationwide over the same time period. This means that across the country, approximately 340,000 fewer students elected to enroll in teacher preparation programs in the 2016-17 academic year—the latest year for which data are available—compared with the number of students who enrolled in 2008-09. Similarly, there was a 28 % decline in the number of students completing teacher preparation programs in the same years” (Center for American Progress, 2019). The fact of the matter is—college students aren’t going into the profession. And of those that are, the majority are white females. The latest data from MPS shows that 63.56% of all teachers are white and 21.09% are African American. The student population is 9.9% white and 51.4% black.
In advocating for the referendum, I am supporting expansion of the Superintendent’s “Grow Our Own” program that would help classroom paraprofessionals, many of whom are people of color, gain the qualifications necessary to become certified classroom teachers. A “yes” vote would also help earmark funds for the district’s investment in recruitment at minority serving institutions such as Historically Black Colleges/ Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions. These are programs that the district has used in the past to recruit talent from the south and other areas to Milwaukee. Without adequate funding, these programs will continue to lie dormant.
Second, I want to support advancements in curricular offerings for our students. When I was a student in MPS we had music, art, and physical education teachers permanently housed at each school. Today, students are lucky if they have art, music, or physical education once every two weeks. The inconsistency of having curricular specialists at each school has created inequity within the district. Families choose schools based on offerings and if schools have slim special offerings in their curriculum they are often looked over and this creates an interdistrict hierarchy of the haves and have nots. This has a direct effect on enrollment numbers and can be a determinant when recommending school closures. By voting for the referendum, the district will be able to offer specialized programming at all school sites, creating parity within the system.
With the referendum the district would also be able to expand curriculum pilot programs like Black Lives Matter at School. This is a very important program that offers extensive coursework in black history and leadership at the high school level. When I think of the student makeup of the district and the history that is taught with the BLM at School curriculum I want all students to have the opportunity to learn about Milwaukee and MPS’ black history. Students should know the names Mabel Raimy, Susie Bazzelle-Ellis, and Millie White-French (the first black teachers hired by MPS).
Milwaukee Public Schools is the only school district in our city. It is the largest district in our state, and it is responsible for the education of 75,000 students who deserve the best teachers, resources, and opportunities that money can buy. Who are we to deny them? If we don’t invest in our own community no one else will. It is time out for unencumbered lip service, but time to put our money where our children are. We have come too far to turn back now.