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"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.”
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.
Doe 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?