Voters Oust Union-Controlled School Board in Milwaukee

Published May 1, 1999

In a school board election widely regarded as a referendum on school choice, Milwaukee voters on April 6 rejected all five teacher union-backed candidates and installed a slate that gives a solid 7-2 majority of school board seats to reformers who want more parental choice in education.

While outspoken choice advocate and union critic John Gardner was returned to office with 60 percent of the vote, three other incumbents–including School Board President Joseph Fisher–were defeated.

The decisive victory handed to school choice forces came as a major blow to the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), whose endorsed candidates have controlled the Milwaukee school board in the past, influencing reform proposals in the union’s favor on such matters as collective bargaining, charter schools, and school management.

The voters’ endorsement of educational choice also marks a jolting setback for Washington, DC-based People for the American Way (PFAW), which had targeted Milwaukee for stepped-up anti-voucher activities after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the Milwaukee voucher program.

In a December 1998 rally against the city’s voucher program, which allows low-income children to use tax-funded vouchers at private and religious schools, PFAW President Carole Shields identified Milwaukee as the most important city in the nation in the battle for public schools. PFAW and MTEA lost the constitutional battle on vouchers last year, and now have lost the battle for public support at the ballot box.

“This is a complete disaster for the union nationally,” the Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Despite an unprecedented level of spending, the anti-choice forces were unable to persuade Milwaukee voters that the reformers were against public education, and that their support for vouchers was a negative. By electing reform proponents and decisively rejecting the union-backed candidates, voters gave the new board a clear mandate to push for further change and increased educational choice for parents.

“This is the end of excuse-based education,” said Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist, who, together with city business leaders, had supported the five reform candidates. Norquist, a Democrat, has called for expanding the voucher program as a means of revitalizing the city and making it a place where people with children want to live.

While other cities with problem school systems have seen their elected school boards ousted by state officials who doubted whether local officials could ever reform their failing schools, Norquist has defended the voice of the local electorate as well as the right of individual parents to choose the best school for their child. When state officials proposed last year to take over the Milwaukee schools, Norquist beat back those efforts by convincing them that voters would bring in a reform-minded, quality school board. Until April 6, few were convinced that it could or would happen.

“This is a great victory,” Norquist exulted on election night. “I think the people of Milwaukee want to have a School Board that will focus on improving the Milwaukee Public Schools and making it a place where people will want to put their kids,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We can now liberate good teachers on our own.”

An estimated $500,000 was spent by all parties on the election, perhaps a national record for a local school board election. PFAW brought in national celebrities to advance its cause and organized phone banks four nights a week. The group’s aim was a voter education drive “to ensure that voters are informed about School Board candidates’ positions on school vouchers.” Most voters apparently viewed a candidate’s support for vouchers as a net positive.

“This shows the union not only can be beaten, but that its endorsement may even be a negative, leading voters to back candidates the union opposes,” said David Kirkpatrick, director of the School Choice Project at the Allegheny Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a former teacher union official. “The significance of this election goes well beyond Milwaukee.”

Although the Milwaukee School Board does not have direct authority over the voucher program, which is controlled by state legislation, the board can influence the program significantly simply by publicizing it, something that has not been encouraged because of teacher union influence over a majority of current board members. Similarly, the current board has been slow to create its own charter schools and implement open enrollment. Rapid movement on these forms of choice is expected once the new board takes over.

According to former Superintendent Howard Fuller, now director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, the new school board members won on the basis of their support for empowering local schools, increasing parental options, and having education dollars follow the child. Fuller believes the new board will move aggressively on these fronts in the next 100 days.