Thursday, January 29, 2015

Milwaukee's New War on the Poor

On Wednesday, Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Dale Kooyenga released "New Opportunities for Milwaukee." It'stunning. It's a blueprint, a plan, a carefully-crafted rhetorical stance that turns the war on poverty into a war on the poor. Does it present new opportunities? It surely does-- but they are opportunities for more privateers to use the language of civil rights to mask the same old profiteering game.

Make sure your seat belts and safety harnesses are locked in place, because we are about to travel to a place where up is down and forward is backward. The first chunk is directly related to education; the rest is not, but I'm going to go the distance anyway because it helps lay out a particular point of view that is driving some reformsters. The full report is twenty-five pages; I've read them so that you don't have to, but you may still want to. Forewarned is forearmed.


2014 marked the 50-year anniversary of the war on poverty. Since 1964, taxpayers spent over $22 trillion to combat poverty. Little, if any, progress has been achieved.

Those are the opening lines, and our basic premise. The writers declare the war on poverty a failure, and the draw a line between Eisenhower's military-industrial complex and a new poverty industrial complex. "There is a presumption in this nation that all we have to do is appropriate more money to address a problem, but over time we see no correlation between government spending and the alleviation of poverty." In fact, the writer's suggest, poverty has gotten worse in the areas that get the most government attention.

"Two-thirds of the incarcerated African-American men come from six zip codes in Milwaukee and it is no coincidence that those zip codes are also home to the greatest density of failing schools and the highest unemployment in the state." Boy, and that's true. It's also no coincidence that every time I see a building on fire, there's a fire truck right nearby, or that every time find water dripping off my car, there's rain. Say it with me, boys and girls-- correlation is not causation.

The writers acknowledge that the poverty of these areas is "a reality no one should accept" and they talk about "the real pain there." They also assert that "no one wants to be in poverty"and they recognize that "Milwaukee is increasingly becoming a tale of two cities."

They also want you to know that the ideas in this plan won't "cost any taxpayer, at any level of government, a single cent." Because compassion is nice and all, but compassion that doesn't actually cost you anything is best. Their plan is about "unleashing individuals, not unleashing government spending," which rather begs the question of what, exactly, has individuals leashed in the first place. They think their ideas are good for the whole state, but for now, they'll just focus on zip codes with unemployment over 10%.

Chapter 1: Empowerment Through Education

This chapter kicks off with great news! While we lost the war on poverty, we apparently totally won the battle for civil rights and equity. No kidding.

In the past, being a minority in America inhibited an individual from pursuing a promising career and well-paying job. This reality is an embarrassing one for our great country, fortunately tremendous progress has been made on this injustice since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, a greater discriminator to escaping poverty is not race, but instead revolves around the ability to obtain a high school diploma.

The emphasis is mine (the comma splice and fractured syntax are theirs).

Just soak that in. Just absorb for a minute the implications. The civil rights movement is over; everybody can just go home now. Race is no longer a factor in poverty, and poverty is no longer a factor in its own perpetuation, and class background has nothing to do with upward mobility. It's all education.I told you you were going to need a seatbelt.

The writers want you to know that "fortunately" Milwaukee is a veritable experimentation laboratory for swell things like open enrollment, choice and charter programs. How's that been working out for them? Well...

There have been successes and failures, but overall the competition between schools and school systems is a positive for the community.

Mind you, just a paragraph earlier the writers had graphs and facts and figures about graduation rates. I guess we're just going to have to take their word for it that competition has been positive. And just to be clear-- no, I don't necessarily think that they are trying to hide the truth here. Choice and free market advocates often believe that choice and competition are virtuous in and of themselves. Educational results are beside the point-- choice is how proper systems are supposed to work, and if the results don't back that up, well, something else is messing the system up.

Now on to their proposed fixes.

Charter School Replication 

Expanding proven charter schools is essential to improving more quality education, say the writers, and once again, this is more an affirmation of faith than an evidence-based conclusion. A short history of charters in Milwaukee follows, featuring a lovely pro-charter quote from President Obama and some examples of swell charter ideas like Rocketship Charters.

Charter schools are a positive for any community. Similar to the voucher program, their existence applies pressure to traditional public schools to increase their educational delivery system in order to compete. 

Their proposal? Allow high-performing charters to replicate without the approval of a charter school authorizer. In this case, "high-performing" will be defined as "beating local mat and reading scores by ten percent for two straight years." So charterpreneurs just need to scoop up some select educational cream, hit the test prep hard, and in two years they can earn carte blanche to create as a big a charter chain as they wish, answerable to nobody at all!

Turnaround schools

Entrenched interests are standing in the way of large scale reform. Thousands of children are "victims of low academic achievement and therefore, dependence on government."

The writers will now use New Orleans and Tennessee's ASD as examples of sweeping reforms. For NOLA, they'll cite success that has been repeatedly debunked. For Tennessee, it's just "early reports" are "encouraging."

Their proposal? A turnaround board that operates outside traditional bureaucracy. The board will entertain proposals from charter operators and will award a five-year charter school contract to the best plan. So, one more public school system turned into a non-public school system to be run as a business. Because it has worked so well in-- oh, wait. It hasn't worked anywhere. Because democracy is stupid and gets in the way of a good business plan? Maybe that's the justification here.

Dual Enrollment Program

"The notion that every student's best interest is served by pursuing a bachelor's degree is without merit."

I have no disagreement with this portion of the proposal at all. Apparently Wisconsin runs a program that helps prep students to be machinists, welders or tech workers in a work-based learning opportunity. In Pennsylvania we have vocational-technical schools, and I will go to bat for these programs any day of the week. The world needs more welders and what's more, the world pays welders good money. There's no reason not to make it easier for students to choose that career path (which is one more reason that the Common Core are a waste of our time).

Proposal? More of that. I'm not going to disagree.

Chapter 220 Intradistrict Aid Flexibility

Back in the seventies, Milwaukee decided (with the help of some federal pressure) to get to integrating its schools.This falls under the heading of Chapter 220 intradistrict stuff.

If I understand correctly, schools basically get paid to accept students who help them meet the mandated mix of integration. The writers want you to know that the statute has a large helping of stupid in that it only recognizes two types of students-- white, and not white. As far as the statute is concerned, Asian, African-American and Latino students are interchangeable.

Proposed solution? If you said "Fix the definition of diversity," you lose. The correct answer is Give out all the money as block grants and don't require any school to do anything in particular with it. So, call a halt to desegregation in Milwaukee? Maybe that's larger than our goal. Perhaps they just want to make sure that charters can choose exactly whatever students they want, no matter what.

DPI Waiver of Mandates

"One size does not fit all." By which the writers mean, schools should be able to get permission to ignore whatever mandates they would like. Because what fun is a charter if you have to follow a bunch of government rules?

Computer Programming Academy

The market wants more technology workers. Let's make it some, because programmers make a lot of money. Perhaps Milwaukee can also start programs for super-models and professional athletes, who also make big money. Or politicians.

And that's the end of the education-specific material. If that's all you came for, you can bail now. 

Chapter 2: Free Market Zones-- Targeted Practices for Challenging Neighborhoods

So, these target areas we're talking about are former industrial areas that have seen a "steady decline in manufacturing and the economic activity related to its supply chain," which was a surprise to me because, you know, the key to fixing all economic problems is education, so wouldn't that mean that back in the days of fuller employment we were going great guns in schools? Anyway, these high-unemployment areas carry a lot of extra costs connected with poverty. But have no fear--

Our proposals are not centered on removing safety nets, but providing trampolines.

I love a good metaphor, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what a trampoline would be, but here some the specific of their plan, so let's see.

Not all is baloney. There's a proposal for zero-percent corporate taxes for new businesses (as long they aren't competing with old one).  Wisconsin also has a 1939 law that you can't sell products at a loss, so that the big guy won't squeeze out the little guy. The writers say that since the big guys are now on line, this is a lost cause (and keeps consumers from getting hot deals). I think I may side with them on this. On the other hand, there's this:

Right-to-Work Zone

Peacekeeper missile. Freedom is slavery. Right to work.

The proposal here is simple. A five-person governor-appointed board should be able to okay keeping any unions away from a new business. The writers say this is necessary to keep Wisconsin "competitive" by which we must mean competitive from an employer's viewpoint, because this is certainly not how you compete for workers.

Oddly enough, Wisconsin is not the only place to recently float this idea. The governor of Illinois has also floated a similar inspiration. It's almost as if somebody, somewhere has suggested this cool idea-- "If you can't get your whole state to go anti-union, maybe you can just set up a few select union-free zones here and there." ALEC? He Man Union Busters Club Monthly?

I have actually seen a business keep the union out. The owner did it by treating their employees so well that they consistently rejected union overtures. I have also seen managers work with unions as effective partners in keeping a company efficient and profitable. I am not a knee-jerk union supporter at all, but the idea that you have to keep the union out to run a company well is narrow, short-sighted, and often more about somebody's personal power trip than effective corporate management.

Right-to-Work states, zones, neighborhoods and companies are baloney.

Chapter 3: Removing Barriers to Work

Apparently there are Puritans in Wisconsin, because this chapter kicks off wit the idea that work is a moral imperative and it's immoral for the government to put obstacles in the way of anybody interested in working.

The writers would like to remove licensure requirements for floor sanders, interior designers, photographers, and African hair braiding. They would like businesses with low traffic and few employees to be operated out of homes. And they'd like to stop the city from creating more license-necessary professions.

Chapter 4: Social Impact Bonds

Lordy, there's a lot of language here, but it appears that this just all fancy talk for "Sub-contract various government functions and initiatives to third parties." So, for example, if you have identified a problem with recidivism, hire an organization to work on that.

If you'll remember way back to the intro, you'll recall that the writers were very concerned that poverty programs were leading to a poverty industrial complex, but it looks to me like this sort of third party contracting is exactly how you create a poverty industrial complex, or social services industrial complex.

It's a version of what we're seeing in reformster thought- throwing money at government programs is bad, but throwing money at private contractors to run government programs is just super.

Chapter 5: Benefit Corporation and L3C

I'm curious about this, but I don't have time to research further. Apparently a benefit corporation is basically a corporation that can't be sued by its shareholders for making too little profit. Benefit corporations are supposed to be all about producing some sort of social good. It's a new legal toy; the first state to approve it was Maryland and that was just back in 2010. Only twenty-eight states have them right now; Wisconsin is not one of them. Low-profit Limited Liability Companies seem to be legal constructions for the same sort of general purposes. I'm not certain, but it seems like just the thing for anybody who wanted to cash in on the social services industrial complex, or run a charter school company.

There are, of course, gaping holes in this proposal. The jobs went away because industry went away, but if we get everyone a diploma, they will be able to get jobs.... where? Spending money on social service programs is stupid unless you're spending it on private companies that implement those programs, in which case it's great. Unions and government assistance are holding people back, but race and class have nothing to do with it.

There's remarkably little in these twenty-five pages about how to actually solve some of the problems of poverty, particularly poverty in a place where the industrialized bottom has fallen out. It may well be that the writers truly believe that an onslaught of business folks will actually lead to some sort of Milwaukee renaissance, or it may be that they are cynically exploiting the issues of poverty, civil rights and equity to help some buddies make bank. 

Either way, this proposal is not about how to help people in the Danger Zones. It's about how to open up the Zones so that private interests can get in there to make a buck. It's opening up the gates to the game lands and telling the pack, "Go ahead. It's open season."


  1. According to this article from HuffPost about a report from the Children's Defense Fund, the "war on poverty" HAS helped or things would be a lot worse even than they are, and just a bit of tweaking could do a lot more:

    And I just read good news about Ohio in our local paper, the Toledo Blade. The legislature is working on a proposal to add new levels of oversight of charter schools. "The bill would prohibit a school sponsor from selling services to that school, prohibit "sponsor hopping" by poor-performing schools, require sponsors to annually report their expenditures, require contracts between schools and management companies to be filed with the state and publicized, and require annual audits of school operators.

    It would also require board members to disclose family members or professional associates doing business with the schools, prohibit school employees and vendors from doubling as board members, and require treasurers to be employed by the school rather than management companies and sponsors."

    The only caveat is that it's not clear if there would be an exemption for existing charter schools, which has been a criticism of past charter school reform efforts.

  2. I also recently read somewhere about something that sounds like benefit corporations but the word used was "impact".

  3. throwing money at government programs is bad, but throwing money at private contractors to run government programs is just super

    Privatize the profits, socialize the costs. Plutocrat mantra.

  4. An Alternative to Capitalism (since we cannot legislate morality)

    Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed: "There is no alternative". She was referring to capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still persists.

    I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism for the American people to consider. Please click on the following link. It will take you to my essay titled: "Home of the Brave?" which was published in the OPEDNEWS:

    John Steinsvold

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
    Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
    ~ Marianne Williamson