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Event Transcript
December 16, 1999

CCI Forum with John Gardner

MR. OLSEN: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Henry Olsen, Executive Director of the Manhattan Institute Center for Civic Innovation, the organization sponsoring today's lunch. I thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to come and hear today's speaker.

Our speaker today hails from Milwaukee, which is a city that after World War II was most famous for its beer and its bratwurst. Its nadir of civic decline was found in the Seventies, when it was perhaps most famous for the hit television show, "Laverne and Shirley," which was nothing more than nostalgia for the days of beer and bratwurst.

But today it's on the rise. Today Milwaukee is famous not for TV and not for its food, but for its policy innovation. It's one of the most innovative cities in the country, ranking up on anyone's list with our own New York and Steve Goldsmith's Indianapolis. Perhaps its most famous and noted innovation is being home to the largest publicly funded school voucher program in the country, where 8,400 schoolchildren receive vouchers of $5,100 to attend the schools of their choice, including religious and parochial schools.

Mayor Steve Goldsmith is fond of saying that with respect to municipal innovation, we've already done the easy stuff and now we have to master the hard stuff. Definitely on the list of hard stuff is how to reform education. It's not that we don't know what the problems are, and it's not that we don't know what the solutions are, because increasingly, people across ideological and partisan boundaries are agreeing on what they are: less bureaucracy, better teachers, higher standards, more choice for parents, and even—dare I say the word—vouchers. But it's the politics that makes this struggle so difficult.

As any politician knows, entrenched interests, backed by voters who are suspicious of change, make achieving real educational reform perhaps as difficult as overthrowing a monarch. Which leads to the story that when the French stormed the Bastille in 1789, it's said that an officer was sent to inform King Louis of that fact. When told that his citadel had been conquered, he supposedly cried, "This is a revolt." To which the officer calmly said, "No, sire, this is a revolution."

If the fight to free our nation's children from the educational Bastille in which they have been imprisoned is to be a permanent revolution, its Bastille Day will surely be April 4, 1999, when a slate of five school board members backed and financed by Mayor John Norquist, some members of this audience today, and countless others, defeated a rival slate of candidates, including three incumbent members of the board backed and financed by Milwaukee's teachers union. Today's speaker, John Gardner, will be remembered as one of the courageous leaders who spearheaded the storming of the education establishment’s citadel.

MR. GARDNER has been a tireless advocate for vouchers, choice and education reform for many, many years. He was first elected to the Milwaukee school district's governing board as the city-wide director—they had eight members elected by separate districts, only one elected throughout the entire city—in April 1995, when he was the lone reform candidate to win. His re-election this April, in which he spent over $170,000, permits him now to be in the driver's seat as he and his allies reform the public schools and public education in Milwaukee from the inside.

He's not simply an activist and he's not simply a politician. He's also a very deep thinker. His talk today is not going to be simply a report on the details of what's happened in Milwaukee and what's going on with their choice program. Rather, he has a wide-ranging and innovative theory and set of ideas of what education systems can be in today's world. That will be the subject of his talk today.

Advocates of choice are often typecast as conservatives or members of the vast right-wing conspiracy. Mr. Gardner is an example, yet another one, that this is simply not true. One of his first jobs out of college was to organize the United Farmworkers boycott, a project on which he worked for many, many years. He then directed a chapter of the Ralph Nader-inspired Public Interest Research Group, from which he moved on to head up Work for Wisconsin, an organization dedicated to achieving full and fair employment policies.

In addition to his current position on the MPS board, he is also president of, a workers' cooperative specializing in organizational development and training in the principles of democratic organizing. With three children either attending or recently graduated from the Milwaukee public schools, nobody can accuse John Gardner of trying to destroy public education.

To top things off, he's a native son. He's a graduate of Nyack Public High School and Columbia University. Please allow me to present you today's speaker, John Gardner: thinker, activist, New Yorker.

MR. GARDNER: I was just trying to figure out where the trepidation about addressing all you august folks here in my home town comes from.

Perhaps it's being a kind of off the charts left-wing Democrat in a room where there are obviously well-endowed conservative Republicans, but my friend Jason Turner over there has showed me that sometimes it takes some unlikely coalitions to achieve things like welfare reform in Wisconsin or New York, or public education that everybody in all sectors of the ideological spectrum says they believe in.

Actually, my trepidation comes from being a member of a school board. I don't know how many of you have met many members of school boards, but I've met a lot of them the last five years. There are associations of school boards in the state, the county, and the nation... In fact, there's lots of associations. In fact, I counted them up once and there's about $17 million a year spent in associations of school boards.

Most of these board members are very nice people. You'd be surprised that most of them are Republicans, actually. They're folks who run little insurance companies, little dentist offices, little real estate companies, and they want their names plastered on little yard signs to promote their businesses. So when I say, "What are you doing to improve the educational attainment, the postgraduate success of your students in your school district," they say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let's go to another conference."

We had a meeting recently between the newly elected school board, and we have this huge inter-district transportation program that, if you read the legislation, is supposed to create racial integration. Well, it hasn't been doing that for a couple of generations, so we wanted to get together with our colleagues in the suburban school districts and talk about how we can re-use some of this $73 million that we spend on public education integration. One of the black guys who was elected to the school board recently, came out and said, "What was that? Was that the night of the living dead?" They had all been told by their superintendents and the attorneys representing the school districts that they were not allowed to talk to us.

So there's a certain validity to Mark Twain's dictum that first God invented fools, and then He turned His hand to school board members.

So I'm glad that Henry pointed out that I'm a few things other than a school board member, but I am proud to say I am the at-large school director of Milwaukee Public Schools. I want to tell you about what, from my point of view, is the start of a democratic revolution in this country that's going on in Milwaukee. I want to tell you the bad news about it and the good news, because I'd like to see it happen in New York. I'd like to see it happen in every major city in this country: the fundamental reconfiguration of public education.

And I think it's very important for everybody to remember the basic goal and to claim the basic goal. The way we conceive it in Milwaukee is, what we're trying to do is we are trying to convert an industry of juvenile warehousing into public education. That's what we're trying to do.

There are a lot of reasons—and most people know the reasons, and all the reasons turn out to be true—why we have stopped focusing on children's learning and what children can learn so they can do something productive after they graduate from school, and instead focused on containing children in buildings. I think that gives rise to some fairly bizarre phenomenon. I mean, it's the end of the 20th century. We've had Piaget, we've had Montessori. We had a century of child psychology and neurological studies and all that kind of stuff, and we are still putting children up to the age of ten, eleven and twelve years old in seats, behind desks, in rows, as if their bodies or minds or souls were meant to do that, and calling that education. We are still treating children from the ages of twelve through fifteen as if hormones did not exist, and we are still treating children ages 15 and 16 years old as if they were children, which, in our time, for better and worse, they no longer are.

We're calling that public education. We're all satisfied with it, and the truth is that doesn't work too badly if you happen to be white and you happen to have two parents and you happen to have a stable home and both of your parents went to college and you have a variety of other things. If you happen to be only one or two of those We've only known this for about 80 years. I mean, it's not a new phenomenon in this country that what we have works essentially for white people and Asian people and has not worked for centuries for people of African descent, or Hispanics, or for Native Americans.

Nor is it true that we don't know how to do it. Because for centuries there have been schools in all sectors of public education who have done an outstanding job of educating children from precisely those populations that are either supposed to be uneducable and for whom we all claim we cannot take functional responsibility.

What's missing in all of this, I think, is a fundamental commitment, first of all and most importantly, to those children and to their families. Secondly, what's missing is the confidence in those children and their families to be able to govern their own fate and make their own decisions. And the third thing that has constricted all of us in one way or another over the years is an inability or an unwillingness to escape our dogmas and our presuppositions, to be able to make the commitment—and it is a public commitment and it is a democratic commitment—that we are going to do public education.

Let's talk about that term for a second, because as soon as you say public education, the mind on both sides of the ideological spectrum, from all points of view, defaults to governmental monopolies. Let me just state a fact. I mean, someone can challenge it in the questions, if you want, but let me just state a fact. There is not a municipality, not a township, not a county, not a state, not a colony or former colony or territory or former colony in what we call the United States of America that has ever confined public education to the governmental sector.

If you go to Vermont, as I did this last summer, you still see the congregational meeting halls that were the sum and substance of public education in the first state in this country that instituted it, in 1791. Public education in the rural areas, where it's cost prohibitive to build a new school or to truck kids over precipitous mountain ranges in the winter, is still delivered as it has been since 1791 in Congregationalist town halls.

If you go to northern Iowa, you can see the first public education that was administered in Iowa to this day by town governments: in Amish schools.

If you go to El Rito, New Mexico, you go to El Rito Elementary School across the school from El Rito Catholic church, and welcoming you into the El Rito valley is a big picture of a brown skinned Jesus welcoming a rainbow coalition of little children into El Rito.

Now, in the rural areas the visual reminders of the fundamentally religious nature of public education in this country as it started out are there. What's less known is the degree to which virtually everybody—and this has been true in Milwaukee since 1846—every governmental school system has either relegated or abandoned to religious institutions kids who, guess what, we don't want to pay for or we don't want to educate.

In Milwaukee it has never been an issue of controversy that deaf children and severely autistic children have gone to the St. Francis Center for Children for 43 years. It has never been an issue of controversy that adolescent young males, most of whom are African-American, go to the St. Charles Center for Children, as they have for 112 years. I could go on and on.

The functional fact is that in this country public education has always been administered through governmental sectors, through religious sectors, through independent sectors. The mythology that somehow public education can and necessarily must be defined only as a governmental monopoly comes from an assimilationist philosophy that was backed by all sorts of folks in the 1960's. It has somehow pervaded our national consciousness and rewritten history so that we believe it's always been true.

In Milwaukee, and I'm not speaking for the entire school board—I'm happy to say I'm only speaking for seven of nine of us now—in Milwaukee we define public education to be instruction of young people provided by teachers who are committed to their learning in ways that work. We do not believe that Milwaukee Public Schools—which I have to say are getting a lot better very quickly—is yet doing that for all of our children. We do not, in fact, believe we are yet doing that for half of our children.

The evidence is fairly compelling. Fewer than half of our children who graduate from Milwaukee public schools succeed either in the labor market, the military, apprenticeships, or post-secondary education. If by success what we mean is earning six bucks an hour for ten weeks in a row or more for some ten weeks out of the two years after graduating, if by success we mean passing one semester of post-secondary education in any institution at all—I don't care if it's the Acme Cosmetology Institute; if by success we mean serving one year in the military without a dishonorable charge in the first years after graduation; if by success we mean being indentured in any one of Wisconsin's 478 indenturable professions—those are not high thresholds or expectation or success. Fewer than half of our graduates meet any one of those.

Forty percent of the freshmen in Milwaukee public schools do not graduate. The numbers would actually be worse than that, except for the fact that 25 percent of our freshmen have the advantage, in some fashion, of independent or religious education up to the eighth grade. If you subtracted those, we would be down to approximately one in four of our freshmen in high school graduating four years later.

Fully 15 percent of our eighth graders never enter high school anywhere. If you extrapolate those numbers not very imaginatively you get roughly eight percent of our kids succeeding. You can call that something, but you cannot call that public education.

What we've committed to do in Milwaukee, and to varying degrees have begun instituting, is four things. There's nothing original about these, there's nothing imaginative about these. The first thing we've instituted is competition. Milwaukee public schools do not resist competition. We do not think it's a bad thing. We think it is a necessary stimulus and external pressure to make us do our job for the children for whom we are responsible, which is still 100,000 children and will arguably always be at least 80,000.

We strongly support the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which is a direct state voucher program that permits low income students to go to independent or religious schools in Milwaukee. We strongly support the creation of charter schools not simply by Milwaukee public schools, but by the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

We strongly support cross-registration and open enrollment. We'll take any kid of any color from any one of our districts, and we'll let any of our kids go in any public school district in the surrounding neighborhood.

Those things by themselves have made a difference thus far in the lives of about 14,000 children.

The second thing that we believe in is standards. There's this huge debate between sort of the centralist right-wingers and the decentralist right-wingers about an appropriate strategy. I don't understand the debate. I don't see any contradiction between having rigorously accountable and publicly mandated accountability and having competitive decentralization of resources. Isn't that Peter Drucker? Isn't that Total Quality Management? Isn't that the entire managerial thrust of industry and all sectors of the world in the last 60 years? You put the resources on the front lines where the production needs to happen and you hold people accountable and responsible for results, not for inputs.

So we have the Milwaukee public schools and we are trying to create a system city-wide, and ultimately state-wide, of what we believe are the nation's most comprehensive and most rigorous standards for graduation from the twelfth grade and the eighth grade.

Back in 1995, it made national news that only eight percent of our seniors passed our math proficiency graduation requirement. That's what caught the news.

But what nobody noticed was that within 18 months all these kids who hopelessly couldn't do it, 92 percent of them had passed the same test. It wasn't the same test—obviously if you take it four times it gets a little easier each time—but the same equivalent test, all right?

We have a spectacular success story with the Milwaukee public schools that somehow doesn't fit the paradigm of major research granters or foundations or something to study, but we have the only major system—perhaps the only school system in urban America—where all of our kids can write. We have a very rigorous writing proficiency sequence administered in the fourth, the fifth, the seventh and the tenth grades, and we have 92 percent of our kids scoring a six or better on an eight point rubric, which essentially means our third graders are writing coherent paragraphs up to a whole page. I've been in some schools in some other cities where teachers have told me that's functionally impossible.

You know how we achieved that? The teachers make every kid write journals every day. For 20 to 30 minutes the kids write basically about their day and whatever, and one quarter of the class gets up in front of the other kids and read what they've written, every single day. Teachers have come to like it because it's actually kind of easy. The kids do all the work, and it requires a little bit of emotional adjustment, because when you're watching the child proud of his essay about how his brother got shot last night, it requires a certain emotional composure not to intervene and just to say that was well written, and to know to talk to the kid afterwards.

In addition to competition, in addition to accountability, we believe in political will. The movement to take over the public school board in Milwaukee is something that we believe is the equivalent of civilian control over the military. The president of our board, Bruce Thompson, likes to say that we have a long and distinguished tradition in this country of civilian control over the Army, but it would sure be nice if we started to have one of control over education.

Now, that may sound surprising when you see things going on in school boards where they're intervening and telling teachers do this curriculum and that curriculum. But the truth is, that's all a shadow shell. The kinds of things the school boards spend their time talking about are puffery, nonsense and minutiae, and the essential workings, the money, the formulae, the administration, the process of school basically goes on day to day in 80 to 90 percent of the schools in this country, not just in the city but in the suburbs and the small areas.

We essentially proclaim this as a parents' revolution. A parents' revolution, a citizens' revolution. That's how we got very conservative Republican businessmen to cough up $300,000 for a bunch of pro-labor left-wing members of the Democratic Party to go out and do the agenda we're just talking about. The essential coalition is fairly simple, those folks need more than anything else, in terms of immediate economic self-interest, the skilled labor force and artisans to enter competitively into the next millennium. Milwaukee public schools are not providing that.

The South Dakota white farm boys aren't there anymore. They've already left. The number of folks you can recruit from Kashmir to do computer programming is limited by visas and logistics. They are looking to black and brown low income communities in urban America to supply to the work force that is simply not there and is now the dominant economic constraint. I hate to sound like a Marxist in this analysis, but this is in fact what's driving a whole lot of political good will.

What's that interest? That interest is identical to the poor black and brown parents living in central city and what they aspire to and for their children. That's the unlikely—some would have it ungodly, but I think richly American—paradoxical coalition that's come together to put this over. That political will is such that we already have candidates lined up for the next election, and there's going to be nine out of nine pro-public education, pro-competition, pro-standards, pro-civilian control of education candidates within two years.

A lot of people ask me which of the pieces is most important, and I kind of wonder if we ask which leg of a table is most important. I think all four of these are supports on which the possibility and future of public education in America rests. But the fourth is a decentralization of authority and money and hiring ability and everything, a conscious and deliberate removing of the constraints of what it takes to turn a school around and improve continuously year after year in a consecutive number of years.

Very specifically, we've put 70 percent of the money in the school. 95 percent of the money is going to be in the schools within one year. Elected boards of parents and teachers can screen the principals coming into the school, can evaluate those principals, if they choose to. We're not imposing freedom on anybody who doesn't want it. So far only 60 percent of our schools have taken it, and the other 40 percent are learning fast that they need to, because they're going to go out of business.

If, in fact, you don't get your $9,400 per student, which is what we spend in your school, because you couldn't attract or couldn't keep the students, the school board doesn't have to close you down. You closed yourself down. Then we have a nice building for some of our fabulously successful Montessori, language immersion, arts, international baccalaureate, and other curricula-based schools. That's the point I want to stop with and then I'm going to take questions.

For 30 years in Milwaukee, we had extraordinarily successful programs. They were celebrated throughout the nation. They were used to some extent as the political and public relations buffer against doing anything like expanded charter schools, against doing vouchers, against doing decentralization. We don't have to do any of those things, despite what's happening to most of our kids, because look at our radically successful Montessori schools, our language immersion schools, the flagship schools.

Well, that impressed me because my kids go to those schools. My kids go to some of the best schools in the United States of America, and they're right within Milwaukee Public Schools. But then these poor folk, black folk and brown folk, they don't get into those schools. They never have in the same proportions, for the reason that there's 13 African-American applicants for every white applicant.

Vouchers started in Milwaukee in 1989, up to 1,500 kids. They were expanded tenfold to 15,000 in 1995. In 1998 the court injunction was finally overturned by both the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, so that the voucher era actually began only 18 months ago. Do you know we now have four new Montessori schools? And do you know where they're located? In low income minority neighborhoods.

Do you know we have two more international baccalaureate high schools? I have care packages I've got to take down to the international baccalaureate office at 200 Madison Avenue while I'm here. And do you know they're low income black schools? And do you know that low income black kids can do the IB curriculum? Isn't that amazing.

Do you know we have three more arts schools? We have little Mexican kids playing Hadyn string quartets when they're ten years old. We discovered we could do that as soon as we had to.

Part of the reason we had to was because there were people, vehemently anti-voucher people, who for 20 years in Milwaukee Public Schools had wanted to do that. But the direct and immediate competition of vouchers gave them the internal leverage and the external support to do that. That's public education, that's the promise that I think Milwaukee offers the country, and I hope at least some of our questions in the question and answer period can focus on if this is a good idea how to do it elsewhere. Because much as we love Milwaukee, we don't want to have to do it for all of your children here in New York. When parents hear about what Milwaukee is now and is becoming, we are starting to have an education magnet. We are having significant numbers of poor people from Gary, from the Rio Grande Valley, and from Chicago moving to Milwaukee for two reasons. I've got to give Jason some credit for one of these. Because you can get a job and get support to get a job because of our welfare reform and because your children have a fine choice of quality schools.

I'd like to open up for questions.

MALE VOICE: Are there people in Milwaukee who would like to see you fail, and how have they gone about trying to make you fail?

MR. GARDNER: Well, we have a group called the Burb Boys. They're the eight white men who live in the suburbs, who have never sent their kids to Milwaukee public schools, and who run the teachers union. They aren't my biggest fans. They spent half a million dollars trying to get me out of this seven grand a year job last April.

They're in a very peculiar position, because we've kind of pulled off a political coup. We've secured $170 million in bonding authority from the State of Wisconsin. I also have to give our Republican—I hate to give Republicans credit, but you've got to do it—our Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson, a lot of credit for this. We're essentially trading in busing dollars for building dollars.

We're going to build 12,000 more seats, principally in the inner city. We're going to reduce class size in grades one through three down to 15 students maximum per teacher. And we are going to create enough space in all of our schools throughout the city so that whenever you move into a neighborhood there is always a space in the Milwaukee public schools, grades K through eight. They are opposing this.

Now, the reason they're opposing it is because their terrible fear is that if we do this and it works, we'll look good. But in the same way that 63 percent of their member teachers who live in the city of Milwaukee voted for our slate and voted for me, much to their consternation, their teachers are rebelling against them once again, as they did on site-based hiring, as they did on site-based curriculum development, as they did on site-based control of principals.

So, yes, they would like to see us fail, but I think they're on the losing side of it.

MALE VOICE: What did you have to overcome to get this situation started in Milwaukee?

MR. GARDNER: You know, I think the single biggest challenge is trying to get poor parents in Milwaukee to trust, or to have what I would consider an adult political relationship, with wealthy white business people. It frankly wasn't much easier than getting wealthy white business people to have some respect for and trust in poor parents. But the truth is, neither of them could win this battle by themselves. There weren't enough Democrats or Republicans coalescing. There weren't enough poor folk and rich folk. There weren't enough white people, brown people and black people to put this over. There wasn't the political ballast to be able to work both sides of the aisle in the Senate and in the Assembly in Madison to make this happen.

We have to talk about immediate self-interest, we understand this. I've been a labor organizer for a long time,. and I know how labor unions go in and get conservative anti-labor legislators to vote for things we care about and they care about.

  I've also watched free marketeering, conservative Republicans decide that governmental regulation isn't so bad when it's about their tax benefits and go in and get a whole lot of Democrats real quick, okay?

So at the strata of political control, this is not news. But I think to get wealthy, conservative Republicans to really trust both the choices and the political abilities of poor folks of color and vice versa is probably the single hardest thing to do.

I believe that once that happens, once people actually understand common self-interest and can actually isolate that effort, apart from all the other politics and issues, and get that done, that you're on the downhill slope. There's a million other things, but I would argue and assert that's the biggest one.

MALE VOICE: I'll take you up on your invitation to explain to us how to achieve in New York City something like what you've achieved in Milwaukee, in terms of grass roots participation on the part of parents in terms of school reform.

I don't know about Milwaukee, but New York City is a union town. Among the unions there is probably no more powerful union than the teachers' union. We have a schools chancellor, and one question he will not answer is, what do you do about implementing a system of teacher accountability so that you measure and evaluate teachers based on the academic achievement of their children? He will not answer that question.

We have school boards, local school boards which are dominated by, if not controlled by, the United Federation of Teachers, the teachers' union. We now have funds going for parent organization and training, funds from the central Board of Education, again dominated by the teachers union.

So, given those facets of New York City, how do you have genuine parental involvement and control of local school boards and grass roots activity which will make sure that children are represented as opposed to teachers unions?

MR. GARDNER: Every city I've ever been in, people tell me the same thing. They say, "Well, you can do that in Milwaukee and you can't do it here," and they give exactly the same reasons you do.

In the first place, this is a union town.

Ladies and gentlemen, with the possible exception of Dearborn, Michigan and Detroit, Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the most unionized, most pro-labor town in this nation. We voucher advocates are all pro-labor, pro-union, okay? So that's one place where I don't think it's that big a disagreement or that big a difference.

Number two, people talk about the intransigence and the multifoliate octopus that surrounds this entire issue. That's a paper tiger. We're eight out of eight in school board elections against the largest NEA affiliate and the highest per capita endowed NEA affiliate in the United States of America, which is the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

Number three, the system is intransigent. Any system is intransigent until you know how to move it. Now, what does not move it are ideological arguments, international comparisons, think tank conferences. What moves it is the visible evidence of parents embarrassing everybody by leaving. I mean, I don't think it's that complicated.

I wish I could tell you I thought of it, but I didn't think of it. If you do what Mrs. Gilder did up in Albany with one school, I think that would be pretty telling. There's lots of good Catholic schools a couple of blocks away from some schools in New York that are pretty bad. I think asking those parents if they'd like enough money to go to that school and seeing what happens we be very productive.

I mean, one of the things that I'm kind of mystified by in New York is why, for instance, Reverend Floyd Flake isn't in this room. I mean, Floyd talks with me about every couple of weeks about how to do this and what to do about this. I don't actually see him part of the strategic mix of what's happening in New York City. I think he could identify some Catholic schools and some public schools that are all ripe and open for humiliating embarrassment. The fact is it didn't even cost Gilder that much money, because the school got so much better so quickly. They had a new principal, new teachers, new curriculum, a painted building.

I think if you can't win the whole war all at once, you fence off the piece of it that you can go after and win it. But win skirmishes. Don't spend a tremendous amount of time fighting things that cannot be won. What cannot be won is to try to advance a political agenda without a directly loyal constituency of those directly involved. That's what we did in Milwaukee.

Now, that's not pretty and it's not glamorous, and it doesn't happen with money. It takes some money, but it doesn't principally happen with money. It happens because of what you could call community organizing, labor organizing, co-op organizing. I call it democratic organizing, with a small “D”. It's the process of recruiting people to do something, sitting down and strategizing with them, out of their vision and their self-interest, what needs to be done. It it’s carrying out an action plan, and acknowledging right up front that you're going to be failing 90 percent of the time, because that's what democratic revolution is. If it were easy, if it were fast, it would already be done.

MALE VOICE: What role do charter schools play?

MR. GARDNER: You know, all across the country there's this vigorous, and I think not very useful, debate about do you go vouchers or do you go charters. The answer is yes.

You're not going to have a serious number of charter schools anywhere without either vouchers or an equivalent alternative. The impetus, the inspiration, the money to do those is just not going to be there to scale. I know about Arizona, I know about Michigan. But I'm going to tell you, for a variety of other reasons, the external leverage is there for those parents, and I'm also going to tell you that they've reached threshold and are not going to get radically bigger without a voucher complement to the charter agenda.

One of the reason that I think charters are a necessary part of the competitive mix is because we need to have choice not just for parents. We need to have choice for educators. We need groups of teachers and administrators and all sorts of folks who want to be able to get together and create a school to be able to do that. In most cases —I hate to keep beating these categories, these politically unattractive categories—but unless you're white, unless you're wealthy, unless you have two parents, unless you're stable, the demographic ballast of people getting together to be able to exercise that control through the normal channels simply doesn't exist.

So I think that charters are important as a way that parents and teachers and administrators, or any one of those sectors, have the functionability to get together and start something up. In Milwaukee, the school my kids go to was a parent-owned cooperative. We survived on choice money. In spite of the fact we're all a bunch of white lefties, we took the choice money when it was our school and our kids at stake, and we were the first charter school for Milwaukee Public Schools.

What changed? We were what was called private, and then we were funded by PAVE, this privately founded voucher proponent organization. Then we became a choice school and now we're an MPS charter school. They did that to shut me up and buy me off, because my kid goes there.

That's the same school. I think the more chaotically available and varied the alternatives for funding and manipulation and use by the constituency, by parents and teachers whose lives are directly invested in these institutions, the healthier a variety of options we're going to have.

MALE VOICE: I'm writing my Ph.D. on the International Baccalaureate program and I was very happy to hear you mention it.

The schools I've looked at that have adopted the curriculum are unbelievably enthusiastic about it, and I was wondering why more schools, public schools, don't adopt it.

MR. GARDNER: I've done an international scientific survey of this, myself. I was so intrigued by the fact that Edmonton, Alberta, went from zero International Baccalaureate high schools to eleven in four years that when I was told in my first two years in the Milwaukee school board that our one IB school could not humanly possibly ever be replicated, I went up there to find out.

You know what they did? They embraced competition. They created rigorous standards. They decentralized the money and the authority, and they had the political will to serve the parents.

This is not a unique equation. There are many, many urban school systems in the world that have done these things and where everybody in all sectors of education is marginally improving year after year, decades in a row. Every single one of them has had the combination of those four things. Absent any one of those, I think you'll get what we’ve got in the United States, which is that every other nation in the world is growing International Baccalaureate curricula schools at the rate of ten to 15 percent more a year.

Rufus King was Wisconsin's only IB school in 1977. Until last year it remained the only one. That's because we haven't been willing to do anything, much less all of those four things, I believe. I think that's what explains it.

MALE VOICE: I'm one of those wealthy white Republicans.

MR. GARDNER: I appreciate your money, and I will ask you for it in the next school board election.

I don't mean to be offensive; just mean to be real.

MALE VOICE: you give me inspiration and you give me hope.

I have a question, and that is, why is it that this society will spend $50,000 or $75,000 worth of subsidies sending my son, who's only ten months old now, to a public college, to a public university system, but won't spend the same amount of money on a poor man's son to buy him a taxi cab, say, or to set him up in a small tailor shop? Or, send her to school at American Ballet. Why is it that only the kind of talent that I have as a wealthy white Republican is what the society will invest in?

MR. GARDNER: You know, I was talking with a friend of mine who was a revolutionary in Cuba in 1959. Castro's had him in jail most of the last 30 years, this professor of sociology when he's not in jail. And I said, "If you had to summarize the 20th century, how would you do it?"

He said—that's the kind of questions we just discuss—and he said, "Well, Marxism was great at athletics, and education, and health. It wasn't so hot at breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

Now, we hear that, we hear that and we say, “Those Commies couldn't do production distribution.” We're right. I think we have to understand that it's not simply Marxist nations that have figured out how to identify and to invest in the full range of talent. I think we can and we must find a combination of governmental tax funds and essentially libertarian market incentives to be able to do that.

I'll tell you how I know this can work. It's called basketball. My oldest son, who's at freshman year at Chicago this year, had two friends, young black men. One of them's at O'Clare, doing okay. The other is not quite as good a student as he is, and he has been nursed by Rice University since he was in the sixth grade.

This isn't a nowhere school in a nowhere town, those of you who are not from Houston. This is a major and distinguished private university. We're able to distinguish young black males—this is the group of people who we're doing the worst job with, possibly the Navajos are worse – but if they can play basketball, there is a whole series of things that is really identifying them early and getting them into elite schools and doing all sorts of things to make sure they can go to the Rice’s and the Universities of Wisconsin’s and the Notre Dame’s. And I think we need to think of the mechanisms to do that.

The National Tooling and Machine Association is a hair’s breadth away from doing this. They said, “We can't get tool and dye makers. You can't get tool and dye makers.” A tool and dye maker who graduates from Milwaukee public schools today who can do trigonometry and algebra is going to be a full journeyman making $70,000 a year in four year, with no college debt to pay.

So I know how to recruit them. And I know who can recruit them. There's a group of African-American Muslim tool makers, who learned it in jail, and are now making a lot of money. They've got a ministry and a mission. I said, why don't you give them a $5,000 bounty for each journeyman tool maker you've got, and I guarantee you'll have your full quota of 200 within three years.

I think I'm playing to the guys' understanding of the market and desire to invest and meet a need, but the response you get, you'd think you were talking to an East German social planner. "Well, no, we need to take our money."

Try five grand as an experiment. The great thing about it is that if it doesn't work, you haven't laid out any money. I have yet to find people willing to put a market value on what we say we want young people of color to be able to do in tool making, in construction trades, in all sorts of things, except for the liberal arts four year track to go to college, or basketball. There are probably other exceptions, but those are the only two I know.

So I guess I need to turn the question around to you. How come capitalists don't think like capitalists when we're talking about our most important asset, which is our future, kids from the available sources? I don't know, because I've had the conversation and I'm as confused as you are.

MALE VOICE: I find very interesting your comments about how we have to build a small “D” democratic movement to change the school system. Having been for 15 years, as my kid went through the system I was part of a group of parents who were very active and very noisy at times. We simply got nowhere in terms of building any kind of effective coalition, and in New York City I would say we have nothing. We have no public school coalition for real and serious change.

What were some of the specific groups in Milwaukee that came together initially? Because we don't even have the beginning.

MR. GARDNER: Well, I guess I have to tell you I disagree with you, that you don't have the beginnings of it. How many Catholic schools are there in New York City now?

I meet a lot of poor Puerto Rican and African-American and Asian parents who regard those Catholic schools as their social and personal fortress from the urban chaos that they experience. So...

MALE VOICE: I mean, the bringing together

MR. GARDNER: We had a very effective coalition builder, a woman named Susan Mitchell. She was kind of our lead facilitator. We had four or five organizers—I was one of them—who worked with different constituencies and across constituencies to hammer out the deal and to create a durable coalition. I could give you more details, but that's essentially what we did and how we did it.

MALE VOICE: Last question. How were you funded?

MR. GARDNER: How were we funded?

MALE VOICE: Did you have any money?

MR. GARDNER: Susan Mitchell was funded by the businesspeople. The Bradley Foundation, which is a conservative foundation in Milwaukee, funded some of the business initiatives there. Nobody funded me. Milwaukee Public Schools funded Howard Fuller. He got so frustrated in his four years as superintendent, he came running as soon as he dumped the MPS. He came out full square for choice.

I always say I was converted to choice and I was converted by fury at Milwaukee Public Schools and the way it treated me and my neighbors. That's the fundamental funder—people knowing there's a whole lot of money being spent and they're not being given the respect they deserve, and their kids aren't being given the education they need.

I guess the short answer, which isn't an adequate answer, is people understand that there's such a thing as a competent doctor, a competent lawyer, a competent accountant, and people who ain't so hot. Organizing is a craft, and you can do it competently or not competently.

To be more blunt than politic, I haven't seen much competent organizing in most of the cities I've been in. I've seen a lot of oration, I've seen a lot of political posturing, some quality P.R. But I don't think this is that kind of thing. I think you have to get parents of different ideologies, and races, and languages, in the room together defining common goals and working durably for them.

Fortunately, nothing unites like children, the common commitment to children is probably the strongest glue that can hold people together. We're still as diverse and contentious a lot in Milwaukee as we were when we started twelve years ago. But if you can keep rooting it in what the kids need, people become very empirical and get quite smart quite quickly.

MR. FLANIGAN: With regard to New York we awarded 5,000 private scholarships. There are 100,000 applicants for those scholarships. So we've had the same response as you've had there. 85 percent of the recipients of those scholarships chose the Catholic elementary schools.

Those of you who want to see happen here what has happened in Milwaukee, Parents for School Choice is trying to do here, organize here what happened there and we'd be happy to have you and your financial support join us in that effort.

Now, the question.

MR. GARDNER: Are you referring to Milwaukee Public Schools?

MR. FLANIGAN: You said at the beginning that minority kids can't learn in the same educational structure, sitting in a chair for six hours a day as the white kids do or did.

We here in New York got the same schools that were teaching the Irish, sitting in front of those nuns six hours a day, doing the same thing with minority kids. So I don't understand why we have to change this pedagogical approach simply because you say these kids can't learn that way. There may be better ways, but they are learning now in the small inner-city Catholic schools, just as their predecessors did, whether they were Irish or Italian or Polish. We all went out to the suburbs once we learned, and the minorities are there now doing the same thing in the same schools.

MR. GARDNER: Let me agree with you, but also let me clarify what I said. I don't believe that sitting in a seat in rows of desks is inappropriate simply for poor kids or minority kids. I believe it's inappropriate for kids under the age of nine. I follow Piaget, Montessori and the whole theory of 20th century child psychology in that.

I've also become a convert to Montessori because I've watched my kids grow up into it. I would no longer insist my second grader sit behind a desk for six hours a day. I don't think his body and psyche's made for it.

My point about race was that historically, and with only marginal exceptions, what we've called public education in this country—in all 50 states, in rural, suburban and urban sectors—has by and large worked for white people and Asian people, and it has not worked for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

There are exceptions, and I'll tell you what the fundamental thing that unites all the exceptions is, because it's certainly true of Catholic, and Wisconsin, where there's a large Lutheran system, Lutheran schools. If you get a teacher in front of children who, for whatever reason and from whatever source—theologically, politically, socially, professionally—is committed to those children, committed to the curriculum, that's going to work. I don't think Catholic schools work in spite or because of their curricula. I frankly think most of them work in spite of their curricula. I think what makes them work, though, is that there is a very definable commitment on the part of the teacher to those kids.

That's the fundamental thing. I would frankly like to see the curriculum wars and the cultural wars about curriculum and various textbooks transferred to what is to me the fundamentally more important issue of how do we put a caring, competent, committed teacher in front of every child? Because we will learn how to improve the curriculum over time, but we will not educate our children until we have that.


Center for Civic Innovation.



Mr. Gardner spoke about Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s pioneering school-choice program and his efforts to reform Milwaukee public schools from the inside. Mr. Gardner’s efforts are guided by the philosophy that public education does not imply governmental monopoly. Rather, any school that all children can attend free of charge provides public education. The Milwaukee program, under which 8,400 children receive vouchers worth up to $5,100, is the largest of its kind in the country and allows families to select public, charter, private, or parochial schools.


John Gardner, Citywide Director, Milwaukee Public Schools
Henry Olsen, Executive Director, Center for Civic Innovation


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