MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee Public Schools budget proposal intended to improve outcomes for minority students and disrupt what many deride as the school-to-prison pipeline drew widespread support this week, despite an internet-fueled effort to discredit it.
Conservative bloggers and talk-show pundits, including Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., have skewered MPS over the last two weeks for its plans to spend $471,000 next year on programming inspired by and named for the national Black Lives Matter movement, which some see as radical or anti-police.
But dozens turned out for a public hearing Tuesday night to support the initiative, which would bolster, among other things, the district's ethnic and cultural studies offerings and programs that teach students respect, bridge-building and nonviolent resolution of conflict.
"You are the stopgap for the school-to-prison pipeline," Milwaukee County Supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde told board members at a public hearing on the 2016-2017 budget.
"If I'm a young person and learning about myself in school, it sparks my ability to learn about anything and everything else in the world," he said. "And it may keep me off a path of desperation."
School Board Vice President Larry Miller, who co-authored the resolution proposing the initiative with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Robert Smith, defended the expenditure in an interview before the hearing.
Miller said the initiative was not intended to push a Black Lives Matter agenda, but to address some of the issues the movement has laid bare, such as institutional racism, poverty, inequities in education and police practices.
"We're not saying only black lives matter. Of course, we say all lives matter. But we are a district that is over 80% black and brown students, and some of our students have a greater chance of being incarcerated than going to college," Miller said.
"At the heart of this, this is about racial justice in education," he said.
As part of the budget proposal, MPS would hire three social studies teachers who would develop a new cultural studies curriculum that would be implemented in as many as three schools next year.
In addition, it would provide training for staff around culturally responsive educational practices and so-called restorative practices designed to build relationships, empathy and a sense of community among staff students.
One technique already used at some MPS schools is "the circle," in which students and staff come together to discuss concerns and solve problems.
MPS Spokesman Tony Tagliavia said the goal was to improve attendance, academics, education rates and school climate.
"Wisconsin and Milwaukee are home to some of the largest educational and economic disparities in the country," he said.
The restorative practices initiative would "create spaces for staff and students to dialogue about and develop solutions to challenges faced by young people in their communities every day."
The initiative aligns with other work the district is already doing related to President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper program and trauma-informed education.
The controversy surrounding the line item arose this month after MPS released its proposed 2016-2017 budget.
Some critics initially misunderstood the proposal and accused MPS of funding the Black Lives Matter movement, a loosely coordinated collection of organizations across the country that emerged after the 2012 killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
Others took issue with the decision to name it for the Black Lives Matter movement, including Clarke, who was quoted in one report as saying it was "insulting" to police officers.
Milwaukee activist Jamaal Smith, who chairs the NAACP's education committee, questioned why anyone would take issue with the moniker.
"We're not negating that all lives matter," Smith told the board. "But this is to say black lives matter, because black lives are the ones we're seeing laying in the streets. Black lives are the ones we're seeing behind bars," he said.
"This resolution is just the start of something that could be greater."