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Est. April 5, 2002
April 18, 2019 - Issue 785

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Board Member Indicted
Milwaukee School Choice Mecca

"Wisconsin teachers are a bellwether
of teacher power in the political arena,
and teachers will loom large in the
2020 presidential election."

The long-term corruption behind the school choice (voucher and charter school) initiative is now being exposed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Viewed as the mecca for public school innovation and privatization, it has been touted as a national model by the Cartel of corporate education reformers who have provided the money to elect local, county, and state-level elected officials and who have influenced educational leaders throughout the city.

Dr. Michael Bonds, an African American former Milwaukee Public School (MPS) Board President and former associate professor and chair of educational policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is now allegedly exposed as a criminal. He sold his school board office and thus our children, who are disproportionately of color, to Universal Companies, a charter school organization, owned by another African American, famed former R&B record producer, Kenny Gamble, who transitioned from entertaining black adults and children to financially exploiting them. Facing fiscal challenges, despite being paid millions of dollars by MPS, he pulled up stakes in the middle of a school year, leaving hundreds of students stranded.

Gamble was invited to bring his ‘charter school hustle’ to Milwaukee by former MPS Superintendent, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who had worked with him when he served as an area superintendent in Philadelphia and later as superintendent of the Chester Upland School District, which is near Philadelphia, before arriving in Milwaukee. In the Chester Upland district, Thornton chartered so many schools that he was unable to pay teachers and had to seek assistance from the state of Pennsylvania to make payroll. Gamble also dipped his beak in that trough with Thornton’s assistance.

What is interesting and sad about this situation is that these so-called African American educational leaders were selling the educational futures of low-income black and other children among themselves for professional and financial profit. Bonds, Gamble, and Thornton presented themselves as advocates for the educational uplift of poor children, especially those of color. Meanwhile, they established relationships with the Cartel and its privatization allies: e.g., Teach for America, Chiefs for Change, the Broad Superintendents Academy, and other education reform entities with the objective of dismantling and monetizing K-12 public education for corporate profit.

When Thornton brought Gamble to Milwaukee, he introduced him to Bonds, the perfect lackey to be used to aid him in setting up his charter school scam. Bonds and his wife, also employed by MPS, had previously filed for bankruptcy, and he was hungry and greedy for money, a situation Gamble manipulated to his advantage.

During his tenure as MPS School Board President and member, Bonds was often rude and abrasive. He once told Amy Mizialko, President of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, to “Go to hell” while she was questioning school board policies in a public school board meeting, which is her responsibility to do. It was not too long after that encounter that Bonds abruptly resigned from the Board, apparently feeling the pressure of the federal investigation into his kickbacks from Universal Companies. He also retired early from UW-Milwaukee where the spillover from the impending outrage likely would have forced his termination.

Since he is presently cooperating with the Feds about a way to stay out of jail, it is likely that other local leaders may be implicated in this criminal operation — MPS employees, local clergy, individuals, and others involved in the approval and running of charter schools.

But the Milwaukee fiasco is just the latest in a long line of scandals surrounding the school choice enterprise. Charter school corruption has been rumored and/or documented in Trenton, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Baltimore County and City, Maryland, Columbus, Ohio, Phoenix, Arizona, Atlanta, Georgia, Little Rock, Arkansas, Denver, Colorado, and numerous other urban school districts across the nation. These incidents have served as the educational fuel for teachers to launch strikes and walkouts in Arizona, California, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

After years of suffering and negotiations, which left many teaches “being the bacon in a bacon and egg breakfast,” teachers are finding their voice. They have come to grips with the facts that their salaries have been flat lined, while their contributions to their health and pension benefits have dramatically increased; that their class sizes have been enlarged; and that the numbers of social workers, nurses, librarians, teacher assistants, and other education support personnel have been substantially reduced. The press has often ignored this rationale of the striking teachers, focusing instead on their demands for salary increases.

The wave of teacher strikes during the past two years has gotten the attention of both Democratic and Republican governors who have publicly promoted raises for teachers. Teachers who have long been a key component of the Democratic base, and the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are now beginning to embrace the teachers’ public education agenda after previously having flirted with and/or having avidly supported the school choice agenda. Teachers have caused the would-be presidents to choose a side in the public school v. school choice debate.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg earlier stated that charter schools are laboratories for school innovation; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had to be pushed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association to support the ballot referendum against charter school expansion, has now changed her tune; and Sen. Cory Booker, who served as Betsy DeVos’s wingman on charter and voucher school schemes for more than a decade, is now touting himself as “… the most pro-public education candidate” in the race. All three are currently putting on their ‘teacher faces’ having come to understand that they have no chance of securing the teacher vote otherwise.

The indictment of Dr. Michael Bonds will cause teachers nationally to drill down on the relationships that their school board members and superintendents have with charter school and other private-sector companies with whom they are discussing or have awarded contracts. Milwaukee has been plagued by cozy and/or dishonest relationships between school choice companies and individuals, its school board members, and superintendents since the voucher legislation was passed in March 1990 — from Supt. Bob Peterkin to Supt. Howard Fuller and his subsequent disciples after he left (all of whom he had a hand in appointing).

The new MTEA, as are its counterparts throughout the nation, is getting back to the nitty gritty of aggressively representing its members. It was instrumental in electing a Democratic pro-public education Governor, Tony Evers, after eight years of educational devastation by his Republican predecessor, Gov. Scott Walker, a lead surrogate of the Cartel. Walker passed the infamous Act 10, a frontal assault on collective bargaining, during his eight year reign. Wisconsin teachers are a bellwether of teacher power in the political arena, and teachers will loom large in the 2020 presidential election.

Like women in the #Me Too movement, teachers have inadvertently created a #Charter/Voucher School Too crusade which is revitalizing K-12 public education. It appears that “times up” for the Cartel’s attempts to dismantle it.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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