When the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) announced its plan to divide Milwaukee Public Schools into four districts, its local affiliate fired back. “The first time WEAC provided MTEA leaders with any information about their proposal was through a phone call Monday,” said the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) in a press release. The MTEA publically opposes the breakup of MPS.
The MTEA and WEAC have a long history of family disputes. The MTEA actually disaffiliated from the larger WEAC family beginning in the mid 1970s to become the largest independent teacher union in the country. They only patched up their differences in 1994.
Now some MTEA members are calling for a second divorce, others that the MTEA change its affiliation to the American Teachers Federation (AFT). While the MTEA may not go through a disaffiliation this time around, the division now may be even greater.
WEAC is part of the National Education Association (NEA), an organization which represents mostly rural, small town, and suburban districts. Most large teacher unions are AFT. The MTEA is an exception to the rule. The concept that MPS is simply too big to function would never come from the AFT national or state office, not from an organization which represents New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago teachers. WEAC is looking at the big city from a small town perspective.
This time around WEAC may find that more of its affiliates side with MTEA than with the state organization, from cities like Madison, Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha, and Beloit. Like Milwaukee, they have large student populations of poor and minorities. Like Milwaukee, they are experiencing white flight through open enrollment.
Like Milwaukee, they may be part of the next round of vouchers or school choice districts. MTEA insiders have privately questioned WEAC’s commitment to fight the voucher program as long as the program was limited to Milwaukee. MTEA members believe that WEAC is willing to sacrifice Milwaukee for the rest of its members statewide.
You might think that AFT officials would be salivating at the idea of bringing the MTEA into its fold, but AFT insiders know this is not the time to have a public dispute within teacher union ranks. It is better to work together than to cannibalize each other.
In the eye of the storm is Stan Johnson, the MTEA’s new executive director. Stan’s qualifications are unique, and may put him in a position to bridge the divide. Stan is a former Madison suburban Stoughton teacher and president of WEAC. So he understands the WEAC and suburban mentality. But Stan is also married to an MPS teacher and now lives in Milwaukee. As an African American, Stan may better understand how the black community, especially black teachers, may see a high handed proposal coming from WEAC as nothing more than an effort to put the people back in Milwaukee into “their place.”
Stan Johnson also knows that a food fight within the teachers’ ranks is more likely to play into the hands of teacher union opponents. He will have to use all his powers to keep a permanent division from happening.