Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City [NOOK Book]


In a magisterial work of narrative nonfiction that weaves together the racially fraught history of public education in Milwaukee and the broader story of hypersegregation in the rust belt, Lessons from the Heartland tells of an iconic city’s fall from grace—and of its chance for redemption in the twenty-first century.

A symbol of middle American working-class values and pride, Wisconsin—and in particular urban Milwaukee—has been at the ...
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Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City

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In a magisterial work of narrative nonfiction that weaves together the racially fraught history of public education in Milwaukee and the broader story of hypersegregation in the rust belt, Lessons from the Heartland tells of an iconic city’s fall from grace—and of its chance for redemption in the twenty-first century.

A symbol of middle American working-class values and pride, Wisconsin—and in particular urban Milwaukee—has been at the forefront of a half-century of public education experiments, from desegregation and “school choice,” to vouchers and charter schools. Picking up where J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Common Ground left off, Lessons from the Heartland offers a sweeping narrative portrait of an All-American city at the epicenter of American public education reform, and an exploration of larger issues of race and class in our democracy. Miner (whose daughters went through the Milwaukee public school system and who is a former Milwaukee Journal reporter) brings a journalist’s eye and a parent’s heart to exploring the intricate ways that jobs, housing, and schools intersect, underscoring the intrinsic link between the future of public schools and the dreams and hopes of democracy in a multicultural society.

This book will change the way we think about the possibility and promise of American public education.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in America, unemployment for African Americans is the highest in the nation and school test scores are among the lowest. With education at the forefront of her journalistic endeavor, Miner chronicles Wisconsin's fight for civil rights and education equality by addressing Milwaukee's particular struggles. In the 1950s, civic pride was high, unemployment rates virtually nil, and the state's factories were considered an industrial powerhouse. Miner points to several years of economic downturn as a major factor in Milwaukee's decline, yet some other cities with similar problems kept on an even keel. She suggests that events such as the Great Migration—the movement of African Americans from the rural South to industrial cities in the North—contributed to the rise of social injustices, while local practices of busing and voluntary desegregation did nothing to alleviate the problems. VERDICT Miner eloquently captures the narratives of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers. While she offers no concrete solutions, she successfully ties unemployment and housing issues to educational disparity. Readers in and around Wisconsin will especially find this title of interest, as will educators who wish to avoid Milwaukee's pitfalls.—Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS
Publishers Weekly
Informed by the various perspectives provided by her multiple roles (an informed journalist who attended public schools and whose children attended public schools), Miner traces the predominantly downward path of a city that was the setting for Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. How, she asks, did Milwaukee become a national symbol of joblessness, decline, and racial disparity? Attentive to the broader racial issues in housing and employment, Miner’s primary focus is upon the tribulations of public education; she delineates the city’s trajectory from segregated but prosperous city in the 1950s and 1960s, through the desegregation efforts and backlash of the 1970s and 1980s, and into a resegregation coupled with inner-city abandonment during the 1990s and 2000s. Enriched and enlivened by her deep relationship with the city, this is very much a book about Milwaukee, but the journalist in Miner locates her historical account within the wider context of national events. While political controversies are presented in detail that borders on the parochial, the cumulative impact confirms Miner’s assertion that “ll politics is local, but with national repercussions.” Intensively, extensively, and specifically about the politics of public education in one American city, the issues Miner raises are of great importance to all those concerned with how our society educates its children. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"Intensively, extensively, and specifically about the politics of public education in one American city, the issues Miner raises are of great importance to all those concerned with how our society educates its children."
Publishers Weekly

"In her inimitable style, Barbara Miner has written an explosive educational biography of her hometown. The story of Milwaukee is really the multi-layered tale of how America has long avoided committing to the education of low-income students of color. A must read for anyone seeking the real back story of our educational policy-making."
—Lisa Delpit, bestselling author of Multiplication Is for White People” and Other People’s Children

"What a great read! Miner's story of Milwaukee is filled with memorable characters and powerful events that have national resonance. Through Milwaukee, she explores with consummate skill the dynamics of race, politics, and schools in our time."
—Mike Rose, Professor of Social Research Methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, author of Back to School, Why School and The Mind at Work

"Lessons from the Heartland is a social history with the pulse and pace of a carefully crafted novel and a Dickensian cast of unforgettable characters. With the eye of an ethnographer, the instincts of a beat reporter, and the heart of a devoted mother and citizen activist, Miner has created a compelling portrait of a city, a time, and a people on the edge. This is essential reading."
—Bill Ayers, author of To Teach: The Journey in Comics and Teaching Toward Freedom, co-editor of City Kids, City Schools

“Miner eloquently captures the narratives of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers. . . . Readers in and around Wisconsin will especially find this title of interest, as will educators who wish to avoid Milwaukee’s pitfalls.”
Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595588647
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 1/1/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,108,957
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Barbara Miner has been a reporter, writer, and editor for almost forty years, writing for publications ranging from the New York Times to the Milwaukee Journal. The former managing editor of Rethinking Schools, she has co-edited numerous books on education, including Rethinking Columbus. Miner lives in Milwaukee.
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Read an Excerpt


The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner

In the grip of a national recession that hit rust belt states especially hard,
Milwaukee was used to bad news in the spring of 2010. Home foreclosures
continued unabated. Decent-paying manufacturing jobs kept disappearing.
The public schools were battered by one dismal report after another, from
truancy to dropouts and test scores.

On Wednesday, March 24, a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
shocked even the most cynical. The state’s African American fourth graders
were at a lower reading level than their peers anywhere in the country.
Lower than black students in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma,
and the District of Columbia. Worst of all, lower than Mississippi, a state that
in the Wisconsin psyche was forever trapped in a stereotype of outhouses
and illiteracy.

Although the results were statewide, they were an indictment of Milwaukee
in general and its public schools in particular. Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s
largest city, is home to about three-quarters of the state’s African American
population, and about 60 percent of the city’s public school students
are African American.

A few months earlier, Wisconsin had earned another “worst in the nation”
recognition, this time for black joblessness. Although driven by
Milwaukee-area figures, the news failed to make major headlines in Milwaukee.
It was left to the Washington Post to do a Christmas Eve feature on how
Wisconsin’s official unemployment rate for African Americans “surpassed
that of every other state, reaching an average of 22 percent for the past 12
months.” The jobless rate was even worse. Looking at those not in the labor
force for various reasons (including incarceration), 53.3 percent of
working-age black men in Milwaukee did not have a job in 2009. At the
time, it was the highest rate ever recorded in the city. A year later, the rate
was 55.3 percent.

In March 2011, meanwhile, Milwaukee gained notoriety as the most
segregated metropolitan region in the country. The designation, based on
U.S. Census data and compiled by social scientists from the University of
Michigan, was reported on Salon.com. Milwaukee’s mainstream media
chose not to report the findings.

A half century earlier, in the 1950s, Milwaukee was a symbol of industrial
power and a promised land of family-supporting jobs. Even as late as
1970, the black male employment rate was about 85 percent, just a shade
lower than the white percentage. No one would have predicted that within
a generation, Milwaukee would become a national symbol of joblessness,
decline, and racial disparity.

What’s more, few would have foreseen that the nation’s urban centers
would become synonymous with “failing schools” surrounded by equally
hard- pressed neighborhoods. Or that at the beginning of the twenty-first
century the most segregated schools would be outside the South, with the
fifteen most segregated metropolitan regions in the Northeast and Midwest.6
Above all, no one would have predicted that Milwaukee’s educational
claim to fame would be its school voucher program, the country’s oldest
and largest and a conservative model for similar initiatives. An unabashed
abandonment of public education, Milwaukee’s voucher program has funneled
more than $1 billion in public money into private and religious schools
since 1990.

What happened? How did Milwaukee, the working-class but ever-optimistic
setting for Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, fall so far from its idealized 1950s image?

In this era of standardized tests, the tendency is to look for a single
“correct” answer. But the lessons of Milwaukee cannot be approached as a
multiple-choice quiz. Milwaukee’s plight—as is true in so many other
American cities—is rooted in complex and interdependent issues of housing, jobs, and schools, all of which are shaped by race and class. One issue
may dominate at a particular moment: Milwaukee’s most sustained civil
rights protests, for instance, focused on housing discrimination. But over
time, housing, jobs, and schools have worked together as the most important
mechanisms for reproducing in equality, in particular racial inequities.

Among those issues, public education plays a unique role. It is fundamental
not only to the individual hopes and dreams of students and their
families but also to this country’s vision of an informed citizenry and a vibrant democracy.
As Justice William J. Brennan wrote in the 1982 Plyler v.
decision upholding public schooling for undocumented children, public
education is not merely “some governmental ‘benefit’ indistinguishable
from other forms of social welfare legislation. Both the importance of education
in maintaining our basic institutions and the lasting impact of its
deprivation on the life of the child mark the distinction.”

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are symbols of middle America, and not just
because of their geographic location in the heartland. Wisconsin has long
been recognized as a political swing state, neither firmly Republican nor
Democratic. Like Milwaukee, it embodies working-class pride and values.
Like Milwaukee, it faces an uncertain future in the postindustrial world.

I began working on this book in 2009, disturbed by Milwaukee’s glaring
disparities and concerned by what passed for policy debate. Throughout
Wisconsin, meanwhile, power brokers had taken advantage of racial
stereotypes to foster the illusion that the state could prosper even as Milwaukee,its largest city, declined. As for education, private voucher schools
and semiprivate charter schools seemed to be the only reform that policy
makers wanted to talk about.

In February 2011, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker
made clear his willingness to abandon public schools and the public sector
across the state, not just in Milwaukee. Walker’s first assault involved
unprecedented legislation that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most
public sector workers in Wisconsin—ironically, the first state to allow
collective bargaining by public sector unions. In Wisconsin, elementary,
secondary, and higher education employees account for the majority of those
employed in the public sector. Teachers and students soon were in the forefront
opposing Walker’s antiunion agenda.

A few weeks later, Walker cut $840 million from funding of public elementary
and secondary schools, $250 million from the state university system,
and $72 million from the technical colleges—the biggest education cuts
in Wisconsin’s history. At the same time, Walker significantly expanded the
private school voucher program.

In response to Walker’s proposals in the spring of 2011, Wisconsin became
the scene of massive, round-the-clock protests unlike anything that
had ever happened in the state. Every day, for almost a month, demonstrations
at the state capitol in Madison linked the attack on the public sector
with a defense of democracy. Wisconsin’s sleeping giant of populist outrage

Walker’s conservative agenda in Wisconsin was part of a national strategy.
Th e nation’s eyes were soon on Wisconsin, and “We Are Wisconsin”
became a national battle cry in the growing movement to defend the middle
class and rebuild our country’s democracy. In the fall of 2011, taking a cue
from the Arab Spring and the round-the-clock sleepovers during the Madison
uprising, the Occupy Wall Street protests began in New York City. A
new chapter in the nation’s history unfolded.

All politics is local, but with national repercussions. The Milwaukee
story is the Wisconsin story is the nation’s story. And I keep returning to
the question: what happened?

How did Milwaukee fall so far from grace? Will it find redemption in the
twenty-first century? More important, what does this iconic city in America’s
heartland tell us about the future of public education in the United States
and our vision of democracy in our multicultural society?

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Milwaukee, Public Schools, and the Fight
for America’s Future

Part I. Segregation, Prosperity, and Protests: 1950s and 1960s
1. The Glory Days of 1957 3
2. The 1950s: Milwaukee’s Black Community Comes of Age 16
3. 1964: Freedom Schools Come to Milwaukee 29
4. Milwaukee Loves George Wallace 41
5. Milwaukee’s Great Migration #1: Blacks Move from the
South to the Inner Core 44
6. 1965: Direct Action Targets “Intact Busing” 48
7. 1967– 68: Open Housing Moves to Center Stage 61

Part II. Desegregation, Deindustrialization, and Backlash:
1970s and 1980s

8. Brown and Milliken: The U.S. Supreme Court
Advances and Retreats 71
9. January 19, 1976: The Court Rules—Milwaukee’s Schools
Are Segregated 76
10. September 7, 1976: The Buses Roll and Desegregation Begins 88
11. 1981: Police Brutality Moves to Center Stage 101
12. Milwaukee’s Great Migration #2: Whites Move to
the Suburbs 108
13. The 1980s: Th e Rust Belt and Reaganomics 114
14. Desegregation: Forward and Backward in the 1980s 123
15. Latino Students: Moving Beyond Black and White 138
16. Money: The Root of All Solutions 146

Part III. Resegregation, Abandonment, and a New Era of Protest:
1990s and 2000s

17. 1990: Vouchers Pass, Abandonment Begins 155
18. Voucher Crossfire: Fighting for the Soul of
Public Education 172
19. Multicultural Crossfi re: Redefi ning the Public
School Curriculum 178
20. 1993– 95: White Voters Reject New Schools for Black
Children, and Things Fall Apart 188
21. 1995: Vouchers for Religious Schools,
Abandonment Advances 198
22. 1999: (Re)Segregation Déjà Vu—Neighborhood Schools
and Open Enrollment 217
23. Milwaukee’s Great Migration #3: Global Immigrants
Make Milwaukee Their Home 233
24. 2002–10: No Child Left Behind. Really? 237
25. 2011: The Heartland Rises Up, and a New Era of
Protest Begins 250

Notes 267
Index 295

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