Q&A: John Gardner, school choice backer

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  July 25, 2002 at 11:56 AM
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LOS ANGELES, July 25 (UPI) -- John Gardner is a formidable man. With his shock of unruly gray hair, brawny forearms, massive fingers and deep voice, he appears to be the very model of the old-fashioned working-class organizer. And that's exactly what he's been during a long career on the picket lines that included working with United Farm Worker leader Caesar Chavez.

Yet, since being elected the at-large director of the Milwaukee School Board in 1995, Gardner has come to be a leading advocate of various kinds of school competition, such as vouchers and charter schools. He won re-election in 1999 on the slogan "Stop complaining and start competing."

His latest endeavor is called the Pulaski Project, after the Milwaukee high school where it is being pioneered. Angered by the presumption that there is no hope for students who don't go on to academic universities, Gardner is working to get disadvantaged students not to give up even if they suspect that college wouldn't benefit them financially. As one option among several, he helps them get them paying apprentice work in the skilled trades.

United Press International: As an old socialist, how did you come to decide that the Milwaukee working class needed school competition?

Gardner: Socialism does not always mean being pro-monopoly. The socialist tradition of the Great North (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Dakotas, northern Iowa) was profoundly cooperativist. The cooperativists believed the way to make Borden pay dairy farmers good milk prices was to develop market alternatives. They did, which explains why the Great North has retained proportionately more family and small farms than the rest of the nation, and still produces, in the age of the California mega-dairies, so much milk and cheese.

Q: What are some of the values of the English socialist tradition that our society has forgotten?

A: Cooperativism, pluralism, and the priority of excellent education for the poor.

Q: Why is Milwaukee a hotbed of educational innovation?

A: Wisconsin has a long, proud tradition of educational excellence. Unlike many states, Wisconsin has developed neither tolerance for, nor patience with, the idea that racial minorities or poor people should not have, or cannot attain, excellent education.

Wisconsin's progressive tradition is also profoundly anti-monopoly, whether corporate or governmental. Unlike the political cultures in some states, where "progressive" means pro-government and anti-business, Wisconsin progressivism is anti-waste and anti-exploitation no matter where it's found. Remember anti-bank Sen. Bill Proxmire's monthly "Golden Fleece" award for federal waste?

Q: Is there a "Yale or jail" presumption in the educational establishment?

A: The entire "Educartel" is focused, almost exclusively, on getting students into four-year colleges.

Here are the reasons for this, in priority order:

1. The people who run the Educartel are all, by definition, four-year college grads, and believe that is the path to success and productivity. They are also, increasingly, from families, neighborhoods, and affiliations ever more distanced from working class high-wage productivity, such as construction workers, toolmakers, and line electricians.

2. The only way the Educartel can imagine doing anything else is reverting to old "voc/tech" programs. These are accurately remembered as a dismal failure in their dying decades of the late '70's through '90's, and no one seriously wants to bring them back in that state. They were also very expensive, compared to the capital outlay for classroom chairs, desks, and blackboard. In eras of tightening educational financial margins, often miscalled "cuts" or "decreases," spending comparatively more money per student for vaguely remembered failed programs does not get anyone's support.

3. Powerful skilled labor unions, especially construction and heavy manufacturing, used to support voc/tech programs. They supplied political muscle in a very effective labor-management alliance that crossed general partisan and ideological boundaries. Private-sector labor unions have lost their membership and clout as construction and heavy industry have found ways to reduce labor membership and power. The combination of off-shoring, out-sourcing, mechanizing and cybernizing has also reduced employers' need and support for domestic high skilled labor.

4. Four-year colleges are voracious recruiters, and offer increasingly attractive spaces in both public and private sectors. The oversupply of four-year colleges, even after the late '70's-early '80's shake-out, gives college counselors an easy out for their seniors, including their least academically ambitious or capable seniors: "Go to college."

5. Power brokers and powerful leaders put this dilemma pretty low on their priorities. The kids getting messed over by Educartel failure lack political support. They are minority, poor, and concentrated in low-votership districts.

6. The legislators and civic leaders representing them have bought into the go-to-college mania.

7. No one's really showed a cost-effective alternative.

In addition, the Educartel has done a magnificent job, in collusion with colleges and universities, of selling the notions that four-year college works. No one but the Army even tries competing with that message, and you may notice that much of the military's advertising appeal is improving chances for college.

Q: What's the philosophy behind the Pulaski Project?

A: The unlikely "collective we" of this effort believe:

-- The bottom line of educational performance is how students fare as workers, citizens, and parents after graduation. This is a slight paraphrase of Maria Montessori's maxim that the work of youth is to become adults, and the purpose of school is to help youth do its work.

-- A lot of work, including a lot of very high-wage work, is performed by men and women who did not graduate from college.

-- College does less than generally believed for lifelong earnings and radically less than other feasible, and often more appropriate and attractive, alternatives.

-- The problem with making alternatives available lies less with the kids than the system.

-- The reason many high school students drop out is that they perceive no value or reward for graduating, and no punishment or liability for failing to attend or study.

-- Part of the reason they perceive neither incentive nor liability is that they, unlike their teachers and many of their own parents, know that the college option won't work for them. They know too many college students who could not or did not earn degrees and too many college graduates whose degrees failed to help them earn any money.

-- There are lots of work-study options apart from four-year college that work better for immediate earnings, lifelong earnings, and, paradoxically, even for getting four-year degrees. For many kids, getting a good job and an educational sponsor is a better and more predictable route to a four-year degree than the more-prescribed one of going straight to college.

Q: What is successful in getting poor young men fired up about working for a living?

A: It's not just young men, although it's especially young men.

What works is real money, right now.

What works is somebody telling them the truth.

What works is somebody giving them some help getting there.

What gets their attention at the outset in order to help them get real money, truth, and help, is offering a feasible path after high school, the promise of scholarship assistance and the chance to own a car.

Q: How many do young women participate?

A: Numbers and percentages of young women have grown as the project has expanded, as follows:

2000, two female students out of 16

2001, seven out of 35

2002, seven out of 54 projected.

Q: What's the difference between the kind of jobs you place your students in and the usual McDonald's type jobs for inner city kids?

A: Auto technicians, welders and machinists generally start at $8-$9 an hour and move up within two years to $10-$12 an hour. That's on average $2-$4 an hour more than retail, including fast food employers.

Construction workers make considerably more, although their work is seasonal and interruptible.

Equally important is the kind of status and social autonomy these jobs endow. Construction and heavy industry tend to be regarded, at least in Milwaukee, as better than retail because they are more adult, more likely to lead to high wages, and function within less closely supervised, more highly adult-like work environments.

Q: Is the kind of money your apprentices make enough to impress the girls around them? Does being able to buy a used car do the trick?

A: Both. We have a new phenomenon this year: young men bringing girlfriends along to the summer meetings. Their company may be for reasons other than to impress them but I've never seen young men bring along their girlfriends to pre-college sessions.

Q: What has been the contribution of Houston venture capitalist and philanthropist Jim Woodhill?

A: One-hundred-thousand-dollar cash investment, not counting another $10,000 to another Milwaukee project before Pulaski.

Jim's shows up annually at the late fall gathering of Pulaski seniors and tells them he's from a working class Chicago background, makes a lot of money and has fancy cars, and believes their futures and work is as important as his. It's a statement of confidence they haven't heard from anyone else.

Equally important, the fact that a mysterious rich guy flies into town and personally attends to the project gets everyone at Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee Area Technical College to put special emphasis on the project.

Q: Can other adults who don't have quite as much masculine forcefulness as you do get through to these high school boys? Can your charisma be institutionalized?

A: I've intentionally de-emphasized my role in the project from the start by not being the on-site organizer. Most of the kids don't remember my name and have only a vague idea of my role in it.

The on-site workers, Al Godshaw (Pulaski's senior counselor) and my colleague Amy Waldman, hardly use my brand of "masculine forcefulness."

The larger question is: How can the personal commitment, inside entrée, political wheeling of Al Godshaw and John Gardner carry this project to the four other Milwaukee public high schools that want the Pulaski Project?

The answer lies largely in high school leadership. Former Pulaski principal Janie Hatton is now at North Division; three other principals equally competent and committed are elsewhere. It can be instituted in those schools, because each of them, not coincidentally, has recruited and put in place an Al Godshaw-like senior counselor.

Amy can handle all four high schools. We need more scholarship money to get them off the ground. At an average of $400 per participant that shouldn't be hard.

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