Why Milwaukee Public Schools should not sell Malcolm X to St. Marcus

By Bob Peterson
The St. Marcus School in Milwaukee has been in the news recently for trying to bully the city's School Board into selling a large public school to St. Marcus, a private voucher school.
Amid the controversy, no reporter has asked whether the public should be forced to financially support homophobic, anti-woman beliefs that are at odds with democratic rights and public policy. 
Unlike in Milwaukee's public schools, for instance, the school council at St. Marcus is appointed, not elected. More important, only men are allowed to appoint the St. Marcus council members.
The St. Marcus Evangelical Lutheran Church, which oversees the St. Marcus School, is part of the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. As a religious-based school, St. Marcus and its teachers are expected to defend and promote the synod’s beliefs.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) was founded in Milwaukee in 1850. Its core beliefs include:
  • Homosexuality is a sin.
  • Living together outside of marriage is a sin.
  • Women are not to hold positions of authority over men.  (The synod’s web page notes: “God gave to the man the unique calling of being a loving head and to his wife the unique calling of being a loving helper to him.” 
  • A literal interpretation of the Bible.
  • The theory of evolution is wrong. (In explaining the discrepancy between the scientific view that the earth is 4-5 billion years old and the Biblical timeline of about 6,000 years, the synod’s website notes:The short answer is that the earth was created with the appearance of age. On the first day everything looked older than it was.”)
  • The Papacy of the Roman Catholic Church is the anti-Christ. (A “Doctrinal Statement on the Anti-Christ” from the WELS website ends with the statement: “Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized (2 Th 2:6,8), and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.”
I was raised Lutheran (in a more liberal synod) and I believe in religious freedom. One of the ways the United States has lessened problems of religious intolerance is by separating public money from the promotion of specific religious views that may deeply offend and discriminate against people of other belief systems. 
The pastors of the St. Marcus church should be free to promote their religious views. But public policy is governed by principles of democracy. Should the taxpayers of Wisconsin be expected to fund the WELS’ homophobic, anti-woman beliefs and its teaching of pseudo-science such as creationism?
Since 1998, the St. Marcus School has received almost $22 million in public tax dollars via the voucher program, according to figures from the state Department of Public Instruction.
In the 2012-13 school year, 89 percent of the students at St. Marcus received a publicly funded voucher, according to the Public Policy Forum. This, in turn, calls into question why religious voucher schools, some of whom have all their students receiving publicly funded vouchers, are defined as a “private” school.
St. Marcus School wants to use the former Malcolm X school to enroll an additional 900 students — which could bring in an additional $6 million a year in public funding.
It’s a travesty that the Milwaukee mainstream media has never seriously investigated the curriculum at private voucher schools, and whether the schools may be promoting beliefs that run counter to state anti-discrimination laws that all public schools must follow.
As for the St. Marcus School, there has been no public discussion of how the school essentially operates as a white-led, patriarchal organization serving predominantly African American students, and without even a minimal nod toward democratic principles. (The colonial, missionary aspects of the St. Marcus School operations are disturbing, but that’s for another column.)
The St. Marcus School has launched a public campaign, demanding that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) sell to St. Marcus the former Malcolm X middle school, which encompasses an entire city block. The controversy was discussed at a public hearing before the MPS school board on Thursday, Sept. 12. Several hundred people showed up.
The School Board already has plans for the former Malcolm X building. It has been working for several years with community leaders, business people and government officials from the Bronzeville neighborhood to create a multi-use venue with low-income housing, a cultural and artist center and a school.
At the public hearing, one of the issues raised was that public schools are inherently more democratic, transparent and accountable than private schools.
Every MPS school, for instance, is required to have a democratically elected school council. The majority of the council is comprised of students’ parents or caregivers, and elected by the school’s parents/caregivers. The council also includes the principal and teacher representatives elected by their peers, and at least one community member elected by fellow council members. At high schools, students have a democratically elected representative. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion is illegal.
St. Marcus operates differently. According to the St. Marcus School charter, the school council is appointed by the church board of directors. According to the St. Marcus church’s bylaws, the church’s board of directors must be men.
Under church bylaws, directors must be “a voting member of the congregation.” If you read the fine print, you will find that only men can be voting members. As the St. Marcus church constitution notes, “Voting members are male [emphasis added] communicant members at least 18 years of age. The voting members shall comprise the voters’ assembly.”
The St. Marcus church bylaws further stipulate that “directors shall be a voting member of the congregation.”
So, according to church regulations, only male members of the St. Marcus church elect the church board of directors. These directors, in turn, must be men. And they, in turn, appoint the St. Marcus School Council. The chair of the council must be a “voting member,”  — i.e., a male. Other school council members must be church members, and can presumably include women.
Yes, it gets a bit complicated — bylaws tend to be written that way. But the bottom line is clear: men make the decisions and women are not to have authority over men. It’s hard in this day and age to find a clearer example of patriarchy.
In a democracy, why should the public be expected to fund institutions that, as a matter of principle, deny women the right to vote?

Here’s another way of looking at it. What would be the public response — and the response of Milwaukee’s political and business leaders — if the state of Wisconsin gave $21 million to an institution that allows African American members, but prohibits African Americans from voting for the organization’s leadership?


This story is reposted with permission from the blog Public Education: This is what democracy looks like.