by Colleen Flaherty/Pictured: Gordon Lafer presenting EPI study
Due to massive budget cuts to Wisconsin schools, Jeff Herringa is a librarian who, starting next year, will be the only librarian for five different Milwaukee schools.
“If I were in one school five days a week, I could be more involved with students,” said Herringe. “The students are getting hurt the most, the teachers second.”
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“It is a personal thing, not just because it’s my job, but because I have a four-year-old,” said Ingrid Henry-Walker, another Milwaukee educator. “I’m concerned with public schools being around and still being strong.”
Wisconsin educators are worried, and not just because of budget cuts. The current administration and state legislature have made repeated, radical steps to strip public school funding while funneling money into unaccountable, corporate-backed schools.
On Thursday, Gordon Lafer, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, released a study examining these efforts by Wisconsin legislators. In particular, Lafer looked at legislation that aimed to close several public schools and replace them with less accountable, privately-run charter schools.
“There’s a large range of charter schools, but the kind that has been promoted very heavily by some legislators and by corporate lobbyists around the country is a model that partly replaces teachers with technology, that here in Milwaukee is the Rocketship chain of schools,” said Lafer while presenting his findings.
According to the report, Rocketship is “a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty, that reduces curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on reading and math, and that replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day.”
Another telling sign that corporate-run chains are poor replacement for public, community-supported schools is that Rocketship, while technically a nonprofit, uses a licensed software company called DreamBox, supplied by for-profit vendors, whose investors happen to sit on Rocketship’s board.
“What they do now with Dreambox, they sell it to one company in California, Rocketship, and it goes to hundreds of schools. The more Rocketship expands, the greater Dreambox’s profits,” said Lafer. “It’s not about what’s best for students, it’s what’s best for the schools financially.”
As Rocketship focuses its spending on expansion and profit, all without being held accountable to an elected school board, radical legislators are pushing to fund taxpayer dollars into corporate charters like Rocketship while slashing the budget for public schools. According to the report, “Wisconsin is second only to Alabama in the severity of its cuts to K–12 funding since the Great Recession began.”
The so-called accountability legislation—one that many politicians, right-wing think tanks, chambers of commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council support and replicate—creates the very problem of failure in the school system by draining money from the poorest school districts. Lafer noted that the same chamber of commerce officials who promote Rocketship in Milwaukee send their own kids to enriching, well-funded schools with art, music and small classes.
“The fact that what’s considered the gold standard for poor students in Milwaukee is considered unacceptable for kids in the suburbs is just wrong,” said Lafer.
Lafer gives several recommendations that would bring accountability and transparency to all schools that receive public money, including:
- all schools funded with public tax dollars uphold the same standards of transparency and open records as traditional public schools
- all publicly funded schools uphold the same standards of ethics and prohibitions against conflicts of interest as are demanded of public officials
- all publicly funded schools be governed by a board of directors elected by parents or by the broader community whose tax dollars provide its funding
- all such schools devote at least as high a share of their resources to instruction as do traditional public schools
- any school whose population includes a lower-than-average share of students who are poor, disabled, or otherwise disadvantaged has its funding reduced accordingly, with the remaining funds going to those schools that serve a disproportionately large share of such students
This, according to Lafer, will provide a real system of equality that judges schools by academic merit, one that “aims not at enriching a class of investors or carrying out ideological crusades, but at enabling all the city’s children to flourish to their full potential.”