TS interviewed Bob Peterson, a founding editor of Rethinking Schools and outgoing President of the Milwaukee Teachers Association. Milwaukee schools are facing an aggressive programme of closures and privatisation.

TS:    Could you tell us about the school closure programme in Milwaukee and how the MTA is fighting it?

BP:    First of all, it's worth noting that the testing regime is at the centre of the school closing issue – low scores are used as an excuse instead of the lack of resources. So in order to fight
        closures we also have to question the way students and teachers
        are evaluated on such narrow terms. The schools with the lowest test scores are the
        most vulnerable to closure and they also tend to be the schools with the most
        disenfranchised parents – the most busy and the ones without cars for example.
        So one strategy is to continually emphasise that an injury to one is an injury to all.
        We initiated a school defence committee, including even the most privileged schools.
        We argued that even if only a handful of schools are privatised, this will impact the
        district as a whole, in terms of resources and teacher distribution for example.
        The main strategy is to start at a school – including not just staff but also parents and
        students – so for example this summer we're organising training in preparation for
        a big campaign in the fall. As a result of four years of attacks by Walker (Governor of
        Wisconsin) people have woken up – as Freire said, 'conflict is the midwife of
        consciousness'. Even in the most beleaguered schools, people are rallying round -
        they're doing actions like locking arms around the school, they're saying, 'you may
        be able to pass a law dictating the closure of our school, but we're not going to allow
        you to implement it.'

        We've built a community-wide coalition called Schools and Communities United -
        the MTA is an important backbone but we don't run the coalition. Because they have
        to announce the schools which are slated for closure a year in advance we can prepare.
        There is talk of occupying schools and if a private school operator is identified to take
        over the school, we make sure we do lots of research and then target the operator directly.

TS:    How can we develop strategies for fighting which do not alienate parents? How
        for instance could we strike in a way which is not alienating to communities?

BP:    Well we haven't had the right to strike in this state for 30 years – but observing
        what's happening elsewhere, I see rolling strikes, perhaps one day at one school
        or school district and then one at another. The teachers can set up places to look
        after children at churches or community centres for example. During the uprisings
        against Walker in 2011, this is what happened in Milwaukee. Another idea is the
        'strike to teach' as they did in British Columbia – refusing to do data entry and other
        bureaucratic tasks in order to have time to teach.

TS:   The way things are going in the UK at the moment, it is quite possible that illegal
        action might be the only way to resist. Is this something you foresee in the US?

BP:    As unions, we have to look at a variety of ways to interpret the law – occupying for
        example can ultimately be called illegal. We have to consider that and apply it
        creatively. We must always consider the impact on students and families of our
        actions, because the right wing will use that against us. In the US, the union has
        become defined as simply to do with bargaining. But unions existed long before
        collective bargaining was established, which is one of the reasons why we have
        to teach about labour history. As Howard Zinn said, teachers have to be good
        unionists, but they also have to be teachers of unionism. Teaching children such
        history and helping them to think critically can be done in all areas of the curriculum
        – you need to look at multiple points of view and ask whose interests certain points of
        view represent.

TS:   How do you resolve the contradiction between an approach to education which is
        about promoting human capital and one which is about critical teaching and

BP:    Our approach has to include children acquiring basic skills. The question is, how
        best do they learn them? My answer would be through learning about the history,
        heritage and problems of their own communities – isn't that more motivational than
        abstract or globalised approaches? National civil rights groups in the US continue
        to support annual standardised testing and progressive people have not been able to
        break that perspective. The fact that public schools have done an unequal job of
        educating kids because of institutional racism leads to the belief that you have to
        have 'objective' tests. So anti-racist education of teachers really resonates with
        parents of colour. And the best way to learn it is to teach it.

TS:   How do we counter the narrative of the 'reformers' who use the rhetoric of social
        justice and cast teaching unions as blocks to progress?

BP:   In the US, the right wing uses school choice – they call it the 'new civil rights
        movement', because in the past it was only the elites who had a choice. It's pretty
        ironic that some of the main supporters of 'new civil rights' have very reactionary
        policies on everything else like for instance the minimum wage. We don't criticise
        parents for choosing. There's a difference between individual choice and a social
        policy based on the market place. By having a policy which allows individual choice,
        we're destroying collective choice through underfunding – so the policy is inherently
        contradictory – choice is destroying the broader collective good.

TS:   How central is the struggle for union democracy in your opinion?

BP:   It's essential for the survival of our unions and absolutely for a union which wants
        to be a social justice union. Leadership-run unions have disempowered rank and
        file members. For many years, unions were defined as guardians of contracts and
        as insurance agents. We have to change from defining the union as the third person
        singular 'it', and change it to the first person plural 'we'. That's hard to do, especially
        if the culture is – call the union and have them solve it. Some basic things have to be
        done, like having open and free elections and providing childcare at meetings.

TS:   Thanks, Bob, it's really useful to be able to share experiences and strategies.