Terry Falk
The Educator

Who is Bob Peterson?

New Milwaukee school board member is acclaimed educator who doesn’t always agree with teachers union.

By - Apr 8th, 2019 01:59 pm
Bob Peterson. Photo courtesy of BobForMPS.

Bob Peterson. Photo courtesy of BobForMPS.

I’m leaving the Milwaukee School Board as the city-wide representative and turning over my position to newly elected Bob Peterson. I have known Bob for well over 30 years, sometimes disagreeing with him but more often working beside him.

“Peterson is probably the most qualified person to run for the Milwaukee School Board in more than a generation,” wrote The Shepherd Express (Gee, I thought I was that guy). Indeed, Peterson has an extensive education background.

In 1986 he became the founding editor of the educational magazine, Rethinking Schools. The magazine began as a local progressive educational publication but soon blossomed nationally. Its most noted early work was the book, Rethinking Columbus, which offered a more rounded view of how to teach Columbus, going beyond the story of a heroic explorer to be one that examined how he exploited the riches of the Caribbean and enslaved the indigenous population. (Bob’s wife, writer and journalist Barbara Miner, served as editor of the publication for some years.)

In 1988 Peterson co-founded the elementary school, La Escuela Fratney, Wisconsin’s first two-way language school placing English and Spanish on an equal footing. In 1995 he was honored as Wisconsin’s Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Given his busy schedule, he still found enough time to earned a doctorate from Cardinal Stritch in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service.

But if the general public knows anything about Bob Peterson, it is that he was president of the Milwaukee Teacherss Education Association (MTEA) from 2011 to 2015. After Tuesday’s election, the entire nine-member school board will be made up of directors who have been endorsed by the MTEA. The public may now believe that Peterson, especially, will be a lapdog to that organization with no mind of his own. Those people don’t know Bob Peterson.

As a young MPS teacher, he helped organize a group of teachers to save jobs when MPS proposed teacher layoffs. His solution was to have all teachers take a pay cut instead of cutting teachers. The MTEA opposed that solution, and Peterson lost that battle. Some teacher cuts were made.

As a union representative for his school, Peterson pushed divestiture of funds from teacher retirement accounts into companies that did business with South Africa, then ruled by a system of apartheid with strict racial segregation. The MTEA opposed divestiture. Peterson lost that battle as well.

His most controversial position was his support for maintaining the requirement that all MPS employees live in the city. The MTEA staunchly supported ending the residency requirement. The state legislature killed all local residency requirements in Wisconsin without MPS board approval.

But layoffs are presently not an issue and the residency requirements are gone. The MTEA also changed from a union focused on wages, hours and working conditions to a union that also cares about educational reform and student achievement.

During his campaign for union president, Peterson opposed putting MPS under the control of a mayor-appointed school board. As president he fought against Act 10 which limited collective bargaining for public employees. Today Peterson supports reforms to regular public schools and opposes private charter schools.

In Peterson’s resume you will find a whole host of progressive social positions: Black Lives Matter, immigration rights, healthcare for all, LGBTQ rights, just to name a few. Bob touched on many of these same issues in his victory speech on election night. These positions gained him the support of many Democratic elected officials and the Working Families Party.

On election day in Bob’s neighborhood of Riverwest, one saw a sea of red yard signs in support of Peterson. Riverwest is a hotbed of progressivism, and the voters included Milwaukee teachers and parents who knew Bob because they had sent their children to Fratney. Their votes helped ensure his election.

As a school board member, many of Bob’s votes will likely be in line with MTEA positions because he holds the same positions, but at some point, he is likely to clash with the union on some issues as he has done in the past. At his core, he is a progressive social activist and that philosophy will drive his votes.

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