In the blink of an eye, longtime activist and civil rights leader Wendell Harris went from hero to villain; from a champion of public education to a disciple of the Koch brothers; from Aretha Franklin to R. Kelly.
What happened in that microsecond? How did Wendell move from a champion of public education to the pawn of the invisible empire of privatization?
Well, you probably believe that transformation occurred if you drank the poisoned Kool-Aid offered by that group that camps across the street from the public school administration building on Vliet Street.
If so, you also believe Tupac is alive and Harris committed a cardinal sin, a biblical blasphemy; a Jussie Smollett scam of epic proportions. What did you do? You ask? Why, he put the children he was elected to serve as a Milwaukee school board director before the interests and sanctity of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA).
My God, my God, my Nyame! May he burn in hell! Or at least that’s where the MTEA wants to sentence him for having committed the uforgiveable crime of…CARING FOR BLACK CHILDREN! (Oh, the horror!)
And while the union may not have the divine providence it claims—and uses—to control other board members with, Wendell could end up on the outside looking in if parents and other voters succumb to the union’s despicable assault.
Sadly, and despite the stakes, most Black parents of failing students will find an excuse not to vote on April 2, and if that historic pattern occurs again, Wendell’s crusade to tear down the walls of educational options and sustain options for parents will go the way of typewriters and $50 littering tickets (the Milwaukee Common Council raised that penalty to $500 last week).
In any other country, culture or cave, this scenario would sound ridiculous. But not for Milwaukee–or Denver, Los Angeles or Oakland, CA. In those latter communities, teachers have gone on strike not necessarily for higher pay or benefits, but to block the school house door.
Or to be more specific, to stop poor and minority families (traitors the union calls them) from leaving government schools for educational environments where they feel their children have a better chance of succeeding—whether that be in private, charter schools, or open enrollment opportunities in suburbs (an option the union doesn’t seem to be in conflict with).
This year over 33,000 children—including mine—took advantage of one of those options. In my case, it was a non-instrumentality charter, with a proven track record of success, superior rankings on the state tests, and a mixture of independent and former MPS teachers who care more about children than benefits.
And that’s an open wound to the MTEA. Because where once many of the private schools were inferior, they have been essentially weeded out.
That fact was revealed by several recent studies, including the last report card by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, that showed Black children attending private schools participating in the choice program (there are no voucher schools, that’s another lie of the union) did better and had higher graduation rates than their government school counterparts.
And non-instrumentality charters, which Wendell came under fire for supporting, excelled better than most private schools.
The MTEA hates both of those options not only because they don’t have to hire union teachers, but more importantly they threaten the status quo—government school job security.
So, forget that manure and propaganda the union is using to melt the snow on our streets, including a libelous campaign flyer in which they call Wendell everything but a child of Nyame (God). Manure is manure even if you try to cover the smell with perfume.
In fact, the flyer being circulated by union members is so full of lies, innuendoes and misrepresentations of the facts, that it could be a speech for Donald Trump.
And like Trump’s speeches, its intent is to confuse and mislead voters and maintain the status quo.
If the truth were more widely known (meaning people would read more and pay attention), Wendell would be applauded, instead of crucified.
And toward that end, let me throw a few facts your way:
The Milwaukee Parental School Choice program was created to offer poor Black children an opportunity to escape the entrenched system of educational apartheid. That wall still exists, given MPS owns one of the highest dropout rates, lowest reading proficiency rates for Black fourth and eighth graders, and the widest gap between Black and white academic achievement in North America.
And oh yeah, let me bust another balloon floated by the MTEA: the basic components of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) was initially introduced by then MPS Superintendent Robert S. Peterkin.
He recognized at the time that small community schools were educating and inspiring Black children when MPS could not. He asked a coalition— Harambee and Urban Day among them–to join him in lobbying for a school choice bill that would create a public/private partnership.
The late, great Black Nationalist Polly Williams interceded only when the MTEA hijacked the bill and cracked the whip on state Democrats who added nonsensical amendments that bordered on being racist.
And the charter school movement? It was started by a former president of the national teacher’s union!
Yeah, you read that right as well. Another misrepresentation of the union. How can anyone privatize (another made-up word to hoodwink people), a system that is in fact sponsored and chartered by MPS, the city and UWM?
Charters are public schools, with autonomy. They are essentially specialty schools like Rufus King and Milwaukee School of Language, but without the admission requirements that many Black children can’t meet because they are behind grade level by the time they get to high school. The union blames poverty, parents and popcorn. You figure it out.
Against that back drop, two years ago Harris, up to that point a darling of the union—went against that organization’s lobbying to block a successful charter, Carmen, from integrating with a failing high school Pulaski.
In a nutshell, the issue wasn’t about quality education but stopping poor and minority children from leaving traditional—albeit failing—government schools.
Oh, one more interesting component to this reality show: According to one report, MPS teachers disproportionately send their children to private and charter schools when they can’t get into specialty schools.
Talk about hypocrites!
Here is a special interest that wants to block the schoolhouse door to insure their employment viability—yet its members sneak their children through the back door!
What makes this entire scenario all the more bizarre is that Wendell is a former vice president of the local branch of the NAACP—an organization that unsuccessfully sued to stop school choice.
He is also a union man. His wife is a former union official.
In other words, he fit the profile of a union endorsed candidate for the school board to a “T”. So, they endorsed him for the board.
But he refused to be the court jester and instead saw how entrenched the system of educational apartheid was. So he did what any righteous community leader would do: He stood with the children.
Those of us who pay attention predicted the smear and libelous campaign against Wendell was on the horizon, as within hours of his voting for Carmen a couple of years ago, MTEA union protestors were parading outside his home.
Interestingly, according to one report, a White woman carried a hand-written sign calling him an “Uncle Tom and a sellout.” (She was probably the same “lady” who wrote the copy for the flyer against Wendell.)
Talk about racial blasphemy. Have we reached the point in race relations when missionaries (like the ones who led us to the slave ships) feel comfortable calling brothers “Uncle Toms”?
But the assault didn’t end there. Last week, Wendell left his home to find his car had been egg bombed. Other attacks are piling up, but most are verbal (they usually find a Black person to carry out that dastardly deed so as not to appear racist).
And Wendell is not the only brother to fall under that union stratagem. Ask former school board Director Michael Bonds. He was so fed up he told a union official to “go to hell,” during a board meeting.
I have to give Wendell credit. I talked with him last week during a meeting to discuss educational reform initiatives and bringing resources and expertise to Milwaukee for “all” children.
He said he wasn’t surprised by the union’s attacks, and while he supports teachers, the MTEA hierarchy can kiss where the sun doesn’t shine.
“I’m for children,” he said. “And there’s a word for those people who use our children as pawns so they can benefit financially.”
He didn’t say what that word is, but I assume it would be “poverty pimp.” (Yeah, that’s two words, but you have to excuse me because I’m a product of MPS as well.)
There are some who would suggest Wendell should slow his roll, to kiss the union ring and drop a knee. But that’s not Wendell, yesterday, today or tomorrow.
Instead, during an interview Friday on Sherwin Hughes “The Forum” radio show on Resistance radio 1530, he stood his ground. No, actually he went on the attack.
Those who know, would think Wendell and I are sworn enemies. Quite the contrary. While Wendell and I have fought like cats and dogs over the years over education— or more specifically, school choice—we always concluded our debates with a show of love and respect.
Yep, I love the brother and strongly encourage you to support him as well.
I have never questioned Wendell’s concern for our community in general and our children in particular. He is a trusted and proven leader who has grown into the most respected and admired school board director in recent memory.
We just found ourselves at various times on different trains, but the same track.
But I have to admit, a smile curled my lip when I heard him take on the union on the radio Friday, challenging the status quo and refusing to back down from his commitment to children.
That shy smile was generated not just because he stood his ground, but because he has finally seen the light— which some might assume is the signal that you’re on your way to heaven, or hell.
To Sherwin, he echoed something I have repeatedly said over the years: that I love and appreciate teachers, but the union that represents them does not have the best interest of our children at heart. That body has blocked every major reform since desegregation (and fought it as well).
The union’s sole agenda is to maximize its clout, to lobby for benefits that are the envy of all other public employees.
The Wallet Report last year said they had the 13th best benefit package in the United States. I don’t blame them for getting what they can. Teachers are undervalued yet have one of the most important jobs in society today. But I jump off that train when it’s at the expense of my chocolate and vanilla children.
In most of Europe, and surely all of West Africa, the well-being of children is paramount.
But here in Milwaukee, where the teacher’s union asserts some kind of mystical power, the children come second. Or maybe third or fourth for Black children. As a result, Wendell Harris, the former vice president of the NAACP, a dedicated and uncompromising community activist, is coming under vile and vicious attack today because he made a decision as a school board director that benefitted poor Black and brown children against the express desires of the union.
“(I) fought for public education all my adult life,” he said Friday. “But I’m for our children; particularly those who attend public schools, which as I understand it, is any school that receives public (tax payer) money. That’s why I’m also for equity,” he said, noting everyone benefits when our children succeed.
Wendell said if it’s a sin to do his job as a board member, so be it.
“I put children first…. people have reasons for looking at this system with blinders on…. but you shouldn’t be against something we all strive for,” (quality education for all children). Wendell said while he still respects and admires teachers—many of whom have expressed support for him—he’s had it with the union.
He said he cannot respect any group that uses poor Black children as pawns to achieve their agenda.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s a lesson those on both sides of Vliet Street should pay heed to.