In a hotly contested and costly school board race, Milwaukee voters stunned the city’s powerful teachers’ union last week by rejecting all five of its endorsed candidates.
The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association had framed the April 6 election as a referendum on the city’s controversial voucher and charter school programs. But those who have denounced the union as thwarting improvements in the 105,000-student district say the election was ultimately a referendum on the group itself.
“A huge victory for reform” is how Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee described the results in an interview last week. “This changes everything,” he said. “For more than a decade, the union has had a ‘command and obey’ relationship with the board. Now we have management in favor of quality schools.”
Like many big-city mayors, Mr. Norquist sees drastic changes in education--including the use of vouchers for private school tuition and the introduction of charter schools--as crucial to Milwaukee’s revitalization. A vocal critic of union leadership, the Democratic mayor said that the newly elected board will help revive the city’s most ailing schools and help attract and retain businesses and middle-class residents.
Sam Carmen, the executive director of the 11,000-member MTEA, a National Education Association affiliate, said the existing board was on a path to reform. He interpreted the election results as more a vote for change than a vote for school choice or against the union. “People want change,” Mr. Carmen said. But, he added, “I don’t think they know exactly what that means.”
The five winners--one incumbent, John Gardner, and newcomers Jeff Spence, Donald Werra, Ken Johnson, and Joe Dannecker--ran on platforms ranging from school choice to school-based decisionmaking. While all campaigned against the current board, not all are pro-school-choice.
Focus on Fixing
“Even those who are opposed to school choice believe it is stupid and futile to fight it” through legal means, said Mr. Gardner, who with two other newly elected members advocates school vouchers and charter schools. “The way to fight it is through improving Milwaukee schools,” and the new school board is united in its intent to fix regular public schools, he said.
Milwaukee has attracted national attention in recent years for a state-enacted voucher program that allows 15,000 students to attend private schools, including religious schools. The city is also home to a growing roster of charter schools, including the first in the country sponsored by a city government independent of the school system. (“Ahead of the Curve,” Jan. 13, 1999.)
But even with those options, plus 18 magnet schools, the bulk of city students attend regular schools, many of which are plagued by low test scores, safety problems, and high dropout rates.
Howard L. Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent who now runs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, said the election proved that “business as usual will no longer be tolerated in Milwaukee.”
“This gives us an opportunity to work across our system,” added Mr. Fuller, a school choice advocate. “We’ve got charter schools, we’ve got vouchers, and we had a public school system with a proud history. ... It’s time to restore it.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee Voters Reject Union-Backed Candidates