by Brendan Fischer, General Counsel, Center for Media and Democracy
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seeks to “radically” overhaul Wisconsin’s education system using several pieces of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model legislation, and to do it through the budget process, meaning this privatization agenda could be enacted with minimal public discussion or debate.
The proposed budget provisions have the potential to “radically change public education in the state of Wisconsin,” said Julie Mead, chair of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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On the campaign trail in 2010, Walker had pledged to “strip policy and pork projects from the state budget.” But at least 46 non-budgetary items have been slipped into the proposed 2013-2015 budget, including ALEC-connected proposals limiting local school board oversight for charter schools, expanding “voucher” programs, and creating new teaching licenses for individuals with no education background.
If these proposals have merit, they should be discussed in full light of day. They should not be snuck in through a budget bill.
Some of the budget provisions inspired by ALEC — a powerful and secretive organization of global corporations and state politicians that churns out model legislation to rewrite state laws so that they advance corporate interests — include:
Limiting Local Control Through Expanding Charter Authorizers
One budget provision creates a “Charter School Oversight Board” that would approve nonprofit entities as independent charter school authorizers. It tracks the general ideas in the ALEC Next Generation Charter Schools Act.
Currently, only local school boards, elected by the community, can authorize a charter school; in Milwaukee, the Common Council and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are also authorizers.
Michael Resnick of the National School Boards Association says his organization supports charters — provided they are approved by the local school board.
“What you want is a strong level of collaboration between the charter and school district,” he told the Center for Media and Democracy, ideally with both the charter and traditional schools learning from one another. “The goal is working within the community and wanting all children to succeed.”
“The local school district has a vested interest in the kids enrolled in charter schools, particularly because kids will come back into the public school system if the charter is inadequate,” Resnick said. If that happens, “the public school is then held accountable for [the student's] performance, regardless of what academic disturbance might have occurred in the charter.”
For Mead, another issue is accountability: both local school boards and the state superintendent are elected by the community, but independent charter school authorizers have no such accountability. “This means the publicly funded charter schools are completely shielded from voter input,” she said.
A press release from Governor Walker’s office claims the board will “preserve local control.” Mead disagrees.
“There would be no local control here,” Mead says. “It would wrest control from school boards, and likewise from the community that elects those school boards.”
Mead also notes that, if a charter school proposal was rejected by a community and its school board, an independent authorizer could be “a de facto appellate mechanism.” A charter operator could move on to the unelected independent authorizer for approval.
A similar proposal to establish a board that would directly authorize charters was introduced as a standalone bill in 2011 but failed to pass.
Expanding Taxpayer Funded Vouchers
The budget also expands the school voucher program that diverts taxpayer dollars away from public schools to subsidize private and for-profit schools, not only by increasing funding for vouchers, but also by requiring voucher programs in any district with more than two schools deemed “failing.” The private school accepting the student would receive the aid for the student and the former school would lose it. This reflects the principles in the ALEC Education Accountability Act.
The proposal would immediately affect at least nine school districts, including Madison. The Madison Metropolitan School District estimates that it could lose up to $7 million in state aid once the voucher program is fully implemented.
If we’re losing millions in state aid [to pay for vouchers], we have to cut back on something. We’ll have to reduce programming and increase class sizes,” and possibly raise property taxes to help cover the loss.
Another budget provision would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for all students with disabilities, regardless of family income. This tracks the ALEC Special Needs Scholarship Program Act; ALEC has been tracking the passage of the bill across the country. A similar proposal was introduced as a standalone bill last session but failed to pass.
Families using a voucher might unknowingly forfeit the protections provided by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including the right to a “free, appropriate education” and an individualized lesson plan.
According to Mead, IDEA already contains an opportunity for students to get reimbursed for private school tuition, but only if they show two things: one, that the public school was substandard, and two, that the private school met IDEA’s requirements for a free and appropriate education.
Under the proposed Special Needs Scholarship Program, parents would be entitled to a voucher without such a showing. And there would be little accountability for the schools accepting students under the voucher system. The Department of Education has already raised concerns about the lack of oversight for Wisconsin students with disabilities attending private schools on a regular voucher.
“The idea that we want to make special education high quality is beyond argument. We want it to be continuously improved in the same way want all education programs improved,” she said. “But how does a voucher that allows parents to exit that system, and puts kids in a private setting with no oversight, accomplish that goal?”
Mead is also concerned about the broader issue of public accountability under taxpayer-funded, privately-run voucher schools. “The Supreme Court has held that students have a constitutional right to a sound, basic education,” she said. With the public system, “if that is not provided, parents can press on their policymakers to make improvements and satisfy that right.”
With “choice,” though, Mead is concerned that the right merely becomes “a right to shop.”
“Lawmakers can claim they are absolved of responsibility to improve the system, and instead just tell parents to shop around.”
Teachers Who Aren’t Teachers
Another budget provision would create a new teaching license for individuals with no formal education background but subject-matter experience to teach in charter schools. This reflects the ALEC Alternative Certification Act.
“Teaching standards have evolved the way they have because research shows a high-quality teacher not only needs a background in the subject they are teaching, but also that they are schooled in pedagogy and classroom management,” Mead said. “Can we find folks who have no training that can teach? Of course. But teaching standards and training have evolved as a minimum way to guarantee to public and parents what they can expect when they enroll students.”
Mead also notes what she calls an “interesting juxtaposition.” The legislature recently created a new educator effectiveness evaluation system that ratchets up state oversight over teachers by creating performance criteria based on student performance and other standards. But at the same time, with this bill, Republicans are simultaneously reducing requirements for becoming a teacher
“They are lowering standards on one side while raising standards on the other,” she said.
Wisconsin: Laboratory for Education Privatization
Wisconsin has long been a laboratory for the ideologically driven school “choice” movement.
In 1990, Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to implement a school voucher program, under then-Governor (and ALEC alum) Tommy Thompson. ALEC, which has promoted vouchers since the early 1980s, quickly embraced the legislation. The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation funded the groups that laid the groundwork for Milwaukee’s voucher program, and when the plan was challenged in Wisconsin courts, Bradley bankrolled its legal defense.
Bradley is a top national funder of right-wing causes and organizations, including ALEC. Just over the past 11 years, it has spent more than $31 million promoting “school choice” around the country, according to One Wisconsin Now. The foundation has more than $600 million in assets and is headed by Michael Grebe, Governor Walker’s campaign co-chair.
Originally promoted as a program for Milwaukee’s low-income students of color to have access to private education, the initial voucher program gained support from some African American leaders and was co-sponsored by Rep. Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat. But last session, Walker and his fellow Republicans broadened vouchers to families with higher incomes, and in the 2013-2015 budget are threatening to further expand the program. “They have hijacked the program,” Williams said. “As soon as the doors open for the low income children, they’re trampled by the high income,” she said. “It’s as if the struggle we went through 20 some years ago — now the upper crust have taken over.”
By 2014-2015, Wisconsin taxpayers will have spent an estimated $1.8 billion sending students to private and religious schools.
School privatization interests are also major political funders in the state, spending at least $10 million in the last 10 years, based on a review of political spending by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Walker alone received $2.35 million in contributions and outside support from pro-privatization groups.
The total spent could actually be much higher, thanks to gaps in reporting requirements. ALEC member American Federation for Children, for example, told state officials it spent only $345,000 on the 2012 elections, but boasted to its funders it spent $2.4 million on Wisconsin legislative races. AFC got what it paid for: the top beneficiary of its spending, Rick Gudex, said he would vote against any budget bill that does not include an expansion of vouchers.
Will Radical Reform Happen Through the Budget Process?
The decades-long effort to reshape Wisconsin’s public school system in an ideological mold might finally pay off this year — and it could happen through the budget process, with minimal public input or debate.
“There is that saying, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ The public school system is the same way,” Mead said. “It has problems, and can be better, but has served us pretty well for 150 years.”
“We shouldn’t be ready to seriously alter it through the budget process, without a real conversation about whether the proposed changes will result in better systems overall.”