It wasn’t until the early morning following election night that word of the final election results reached the leaders of the Racine Education Association.
The teachers had nervously gathered at the union’s offices on the west side of this medium-sized city in southeastern Wisconsin. There was a lot riding on this April 5, 2016, school board election.
In recent years, the Racine School Board had become increasingly divided. One faction embraced the school district’s administration unreservedly, including a controversial new high school schedule that teachers worried could disrupt their work and interfere with student learning. The other group sided with teachers who wanted more say in the process.
It was a small battle in a much larger war. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Scott Walker had set about turning Wisconsin from a state that embraced workers’ rights to one that would throttle unions in the public and private sectors alike. Now, after stripping public employees of their union rights, squeezing the ability of public schools to raise revenues, and throwing open the doors for private schools around the state to get public money by expanding Milwaukee’s controversial school voucher program, the state’s Republican lawmakers had come back for more.
In a measure aimed exclusively at Racine, the state legislature wiped out the Racine Unified School District’s long-standing tradition in which all school board seats were at-large, meaning voters anywhere in the city could vote for all seats in contention. This set up gave teachers clustered in the city a stronger voice. Instead, the district got carved into nine distinct geographic seats, starting with April’s election. Under the new rules, all nine seats had to be decided at once, not just the usual three.
For Cory Mason, a Democratic member of Wisconsin’s state Assembly whose district includes most of Racine, the episode was classic overreach: “This legislature has proven that it’s very willing to override local control to have its way on education policy.”
But after years of heavy-handed Republican control of Wisconsin’s political machinery, Racine Unified School District voters pushed back. When all the votes were counted, eight of the nine victors were candidates who supported a stronger voice for teachers and had either formal or unofficial union support. The legislature’s maneuver had backfired.
Racine’s story offers a lesson that reaches far beyond the Lake Michigan shoreline that the city hugs. It’s a lesson especially relevant as the Trump Administration embraces policies that would further hobble urban public schools. The Racine School Board battle shows how communities and teachers can push back against some of the outside forces that seek to suppress local control and further weaken their collective voice in schools.
“What we did is something that needs to be used as an example of how to push back against the moneyed interests at the local level,” says former teachers’ union president Aaron Eick. Racine isn’t alone, he adds: “It’s happened all over the country, where local people have really taken back the reins of power.”
“It’s happened all over the country, where local people have really taken back the reins of power.”
Across the country the same forces that have laid siege to urban public school systems in big cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit are moving into smaller districts. Small and mid sized cities like Racine, a city of 78,000 people about thirty miles south of Milwaukee, confront big-city challenges, including worsening segregation, privatization in the name of “school choice,” and attempts to wrest control from locally elected school boards, but with even scarcer resources.
“The school districts that are most disadvantaged by [school] choice and experience the greatest financial struggles are small city districts with 20,000 to 50,000 kids,” says Bruce D. Baker, who teaches educational theory, policy, and administration at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education in New Jersey and who blogs at School Finance 101. Between shrinking state aid and sagging urban property values, those smaller districts “don’t have local financial capacity to offset what they can’t get through the state.”
Racine’s public schools endured challenges long before Walker took office. Created in 1960 when the city’s school system consolidated scores of small surrounding districts, the early Racine Unified School District was flush with resources, which it put toward curriculum improvements and buildings. Then, in the late 1960s, aggressive cost-cutting by a renegade school board faction left teachers worried about their future. Believing their survival was at stake, the once-collegial and largely social Racine Education Association hired a hard-nosed executive director and went on several contentious strikes in the 1970s, including one that lasted fifty days.
Conflict lingered for decades, until changes in both union and district leadership brought about attempts at rapprochement starting in 2000. But Act 10, Walker’s 2011 law stripping teachers and other public workers of virtually all union rights, halted that. Meanwhile, other GOP measures effectively kneecapped the district.
Walker’s cuts to state education funds cost the Racine district some $15 million under the governor’s first budget. That same year, the legislature passed and Walker signed another law creating a Racine-specific, taxpayer-funded private school voucher program for families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. At first entirely state funded, the program now costs the district more than $4 million a year.
The number of students in the Racine voucher program has ballooned from 212 in 2011-12 to 2,463 in the current 2016-17 school year. Another and much older school choice program—public school open enrollment, which allows students to transfer to other public school districts, with tax revenues and aid dollars following them—has further reduced district enrollment and pinched finances. In the 2015-16 school year, the district lost a net 1,267 students to other communities and $7.4 million in revenue to other districts.
“That’s our tax dollars going to another school system,” laments Racine Superintendent Lolli Haws. “It’s a drain on our school district’s resources.”
In Racine as elsewhere, there is no evidence that either open enrollment or the voucher program has improved learning overall or narrowed district achievement gaps. But both have almost certainly contributed to greater poverty and segregation.
In 2005, enrollment in the Racine district—which includes three surrounding suburban areas along with the city—was slightly more than half white (53.5 percent), while fewer than a third of students (31.6 percent) were from so-called economically disadvantaged families earning less than 185 percent of the poverty level—qualifying them for free or reduced-price lunch.
Today, nearly 60 percent of students in Racine public schools are children of color, with about an even split between African American and Hispanic. Roughly the same percentage are low income. So, too, at individual schools: More have a majority of poor children and higher concentrations of black and Hispanic kids. Others, in affluent suburban areas, have more white children and fewer poor ones than a decade ago.
Citing United Way reports, Racine School Board President Mike Frontier, a longtime teacher and principal, says 57 percent of families in Racine are working poor who, despite earning above the federal poverty level, cannot cover the costs of housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care; statewide, the figure is 42 percent.
Frontier is a retired school district veteran who came to Racine in the late 1960s as part of a program to teach reading skills to children raised in poverty—“building on Head Start,” as he puts it. Racine began desegregating its schools voluntarily in 1975; by the early 1980s, Frontier was principal at an elementary school northwest of Racine that included African American children from the city alongside local white children.
“We had a computer lab—because there was no software, we would teach them programming in elementary school. It was amazing. We called it a school for the future.” The experience affirmed Frontier’s belief in the importance of school integration for promoting tolerance among children who had grown up in a largely segregated community. “You could see [use of] the N-word diminish over time,” he says. “It was a beautiful mix of kids.”
But in autumn of 2015, the school board dropped its desegregation policy; the school district’s attorney, who had authored the plan as a school board member forty years earlier, said federal court rulings barred school districts from using race as a primary reason for assigning students to particular schools. Last September, the same semirural school where Frontier had once served as principal reopened as a combined elementary and middle school serving children from kindergarten through eighth grade; its attendance boundaries took in the suburban northwest corner of the district, skipping the city entirely.
Dennis Wiser has seen the inside of the Racine school system three ways. He taught high school math for nearly three decades, then became executive director of the Racine Education Association in 2000, where he hoped “to build a positive working relationship with the district.” Progress toward that goal was uneven, he admits. After retiring, Wiser has been on the Racine School Board since 2008.
“The biggest challenge facing us in Racine and many other districts is fallout from a stagnant economy,” he says. “When I first came here in ’72, this community was a manufacturing powerhouse.” With the loss of those good-paying jobs came an increase in the number of children growing up in impoverished and unstable homes, coming to school far less ready than previous generations were.
“Everybody understands what’s going on,” Wiser muses. “Nobody has a solution at this point.”
In some other cities, business leaders have been outspoken in favor of privatization schemes such as vouchers and charter schools. Not so much in Racine, where for years the Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce had instead sought to engage with school administrators. (By contrast, says Wiser, vouchers were mainly the pet project of GOP legislators who, it seemed, “flew over in an airplane and dropped the voucher program on us and flew off.”)
After Act 10 passed, Racine, along with a few other districts, adopted an employee handbook that replaced the now-obsolete teachers’ union contract. Since it was first adopted, the Racine Unified School District’s handbook has included language requiring district administrators to confer with the union when developing changes. But in May 2015, the board’s then-president, Melvin Hargrove, moved to eliminate that language. While the motion failed 4 to 5, Hargrove’s proposal rankled union members.
When a board member who supported the union resigned, the board deadlocked over a replacement. In response, the state legislature stepped in and passed a law in October 2015 that gave the board president authority to unilaterally fill a vacancy if the board could not agree on a candidate.
Four days after the bill was signed into law, Hargrove appointed a new member, John Koetz, a manufacturing executive. Koetz promptly joined with the now-pro-administration majority to approve the revised handbook over the protests of teachers’ union members and community supporters. The new document contained the payment and promotion provisions that the union opposed, although language granting the union a voice on revisions remained.
The Republican-authored law letting Hargrove fill the board vacancy with his preferred candidate was not the first time GOP lawmakers had reached down to reshape the school board. Tucked in the 2015-16 state budget was a measure—also brought by the area’s Republican delegation—requiring the district to replace its tradition of at-large school board representation with geographic districts. Under the new state mandate, the board drew up districts that pitted three pairs of incumbents who had been on opposite sides of the teacher-administration debate against each other. The union’s current president, Angelina Cruz, says it looked as though legislators “wanted to remove our voice from the process.”
The union worked feverishly to find candidates whom it saw as public school advocates. In the end, the union formally endorsed three incumbents and four newcomers. They also gave tacit support to a fourth incumbent, Frontier, as well as a newcomer the union recruited to run for an unopposed slot.
Flyers went out to voters backing the pro-administration incumbents; the source of those purported “issue ads”—they lacked the “vote for” or “vote against” language that would have subjected them to financial disclosure regulations—has never been publicly identified. It was not the first time dark money groups meddled in a local school board race. In nearby Kenosha, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity succeeded in electing an anti-union majority to the school board in 2014.
Teachers knocked on doors for weeks. The union forged alliances with the Wisconsin chapter of the Working Families Party and the immigrant-rights organization Voces de la Frontera, both of which endorsed union-supported candidates they identified as champions of public schools. They found a receptive audience among voters offended when lawmakers in Madison kept rewriting the rules for local school board elections, Cruz says.
And when the ballots were cast, all but one member of the pro-teachers’ side was elected. All of the incumbents who had sided with the administration against the union lost.
For its president, the new board chose Frontier, who says he’s made it his mission to “work collegially with our employees.” And the sense of collaboration doesn’t stop there.
“What we have now is a board that is more able to communicate with each other,” says Wiser, one of the reelected incumbents. “And as a result, we’re becoming more effective in communicating with the administration and with the teachers.”
“We went from a board that was aggressively trying to diminish the [teaching] profession to a board that is trying to balance the interests of all,” Eick says.
We went from a board that was aggressively trying to diminish the [teaching] profession to a board that is trying to balance the interests of all.
The reshaping of the school board didn’t end any of the district’s deeper challenges.
A new vocational program that makes significant changes to both curriculum and scheduling has gone ahead. Teachers are trying to work with the new program, Cruz and Eick both agree, while encountering some predictable problems. Although returning school board members had been critical of what they saw as the administration’s top-down style, the new board opted not to fire Haws. Instead, aiming to avoid disruption and help set the table for a more orderly transition to a new administration, they extended the superintendent’s contract for a single year.
Still, the continued drain of students from the district persists. And worry lurks that Caledonia or another of the district’s suburban communities will try to leave.
Lawmakers floated this idea in the last legislative session. Influential local business leaders reportedly came to the Racine district’s defense, telling legislators that separation wouldn’t be in the community’s best interest.
Frontier, without commenting directly on the issue, says he’s been paying attention to the concerns of some of those suburban residents. “Their concern is that they want a strong learning environment for their students,” he says. “We need to address school climate. We need more alternatives.”
After the 2016 election, the board is returning to its previous three-seats-a-year staggered election schedule. Frontier and Wiser are once again up for reelection in April to full three-year terms. A third incumbent is stepping down, bringing another newcomer to the board.
All three are running unopposed.