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An Open Book
A local writer plumbs the history of education and race relations in Milwaukee.

Barbara Miner has worked both sides of the journalistic fence. She’s been a traditional news reporter – for the Milwaukee Journal – and a freelancer for other publications, from the New York Times to (ahem) Milwaukee Magazine. And she’s worked in the advocacy press, as a managing editor and later as a freelance contributor for the Milwaukee-based Rethinking Schools and many other outlets. She’s also one of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Purple Wisconsin” bloggers.

She’s brought strands of both forms of journalism to her book Lessons from the Heartland (The New Press, 305 pp.), which takes a bow (along with her) at 7 p.m. tonight at Boswell Books.


Lessons is a history of the last half-century of public education in Milwaukee. It’s informed by her journalistic experience as well as by her biography. Miner grew up in Milwaukee (where she attended Catholic schools, graduating in 1969). Returning to the city in the 1980s, she sent her children to the innovative La Escuela Fratney/Fratney Street School, a dual-language public school. (She later married Bob Peterson, the teacher-activist who had cofounded both Fratney and Rethinking Schools; he now heads the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association union at Milwaukee Public Schools.)


In Lessons, Miner makes brief forays into her own history, such as when she briefly recounts the racism-inflected campaign Common Council President Milton J. McGuire, her Uncle Mac – “my favorite uncle” – ran in 1956 against incumbent Mayor Frank Zeidler. (McGuire lost.) But for the most part the book is history, not memoir, a mix of scholarship, journalism, and commentary and analysis.


“I tried to look at education in a much broader context of what was going on in the city,” Miner says – and that meant, in large part, focusing on Milwaukee’s racial history.


She probes the city’s deep-seated segregation – in neighborhoods and schools alike – and the hostility toward blacks that made the segregationist Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama a popular politician in some of the city’s white enclaves. She maps the struggles of the African American community from the Great Migration that brought an influx of Southern blacks to work in the city’s once-thriving factories and the subsequent economic collapse of much of the black community in the face of industrial flight. And she explores the rise of voucher schools and the disparate personalities, black and white, from left to right on the political spectrum, who facilitated Milwaukee’s pioneering experiment in private schooling paid for with public dollars.


Miner’s brother is a history teacher, and upon hearing her topic was the history of public schools for the last 50 years, he teased, “so how are you gonna keep people awake?” Mindful of that challenge, she says, “a lot of what I tried to do is tell stories.” But both her journalistic training and her commitment to intellectual rigor, she says, compelled her to go beyond that. “I hate policy by vignette,” says Miner. “Stories are absolutely essential, but stories cannot be a substitute for policy analysis. I really wanted to merge those two in a way that had journalistic and intellectual credibility.”


Throughout the book she also dips into how the media covered the interrelated conflicts over jobs, housing, and schools that roiled Milwaukee.


Having been both a traditional journalist as well as an activist-writer, Miner finds the evolving culture of journalism especially challenging. Some trends she likes – such as a greater willingness to abandon the reflexive demand for “equal time to both sides” of a controversy “when one side is off the wall and wrong.”


But whether because its practitioners are lazy or overworked, she finds troubling the ease with which news outlets will so easily run with the latest press release “without checking internally to see if it’s consistent or even has its facts straight,” she adds. “That's one of the downsides of this hurry-up-and-do-everything culture. Reporters don't always have the chance to do some background research and checking up that they'd like to.”


And media coverage of education can be maddeningly uneven, she says – citing as an example the failure of news outlets, including the JS, to consistently point out that despite receiving taxpayer funds, “the state’s voucher schools don’t have to follow public meeting and open records laws.”


Still, Miner still finds herself quick to take the side of traditional news outlets. Advocacy media, she says, need to attend to greater factual rigor and also to adopt a certain distance from its subjects so as to write more honestly. Mainstream publications, meanwhile, need to be understood for what they are.


“I feel myself trapped in the middle a lot,” she says. “In discussions with people in advocacy media, I defend the mainstream media a lot. They serve a different function – their function is to reflect the broader opinion.”


Words, words, words: It’s not in Miner’s book, but in recent correspondence with her, former Journal editorial page editor Dave Behrendt offered one particularly fascinating nugget about the newspaper’s coverage of desegregation efforts decades before. I confirmed the story with Behrendt directly, and this is what he tells me from back when he was a full-time education reporter in the early 1960s and covering MPS.


“One day I mentioned proposals or efforts to ‘desegregate’ Milwaukee schools,” Behrendt tells me by email. “An assistant city editor brought my story back to me and said I was not to use the words ‘desegregate’ or ‘desegregation’ in regard to MPS.” The editor conveyed a strong impression that the provision “was not just for me but throughout The Journal.”


Faced with the dilemma of how to describe what could not be named, he says, “I contrived the cumbersome phrase ‘efforts to increase the number of white and Negro children attending class together.’”


Behrendt says he never did know why the S-word was forbidden. “My suspicion was that Harold Story, a prominent attorney who was a School Board member, had likely persuaded someone in power at The Journal to drop ‘desegregation’ regarding MPS because it might imply that the schools had earlier been segregated, thus perhaps creating a legal vulnerability. But this latter was just my speculation.”



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Jay_Warner Posted: 1/25/2013 11:39:25 PM
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Wisconsin education, and K-12 specifically, needs a serious evaluation to understand where it is going, plus where is headed and how we might influence that direction (if we wanted to). Race in the US has almost always been a contentious dividing point. This book should provide a long global view of Milwaukee's education development. Perhaps that will help us recognize the deep antecedents of this year's crises, and give direction to make the needed changes. I plan to buy the book.
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