by Félix Pérez
Expanding vouchers to unaccountable private schools. Stripping teachers of their right to due process. Converting neighborhood public schools into privately run charter schools unanswerable to local school boards and taxpayers. Proceeding with tax cuts for the wealthy while starving public schools.
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These are some of the hot-button issues that will affect students, educators and public education as extremist governors and state lawmakers flex their new-found political muscle in this year’s state legislative sessions.
Here’s a sample of what to expect:
- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has announced he wants to expand private school vouchers. The governor and his allies in the state legislature cut funding to public schools by $1.6 billion while increasing taxpayer funding to private voucher schools by $300 million. Commented physical education teacher Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council: “Sending tax dollars to unaccountable private schools rather than providing adequate funding for their public schools is irresponsible. When limited tax dollars are funneled to vouchers, there’s little left to fund neighborhood public schools.”
Separately, state Assembly Republicans advanced a new “school accountability” bill that sets public schools up for failure and a takeover by private entities. “If enacted, the system will be rigged in favor of voucher schools which will be able to choose which tests they want for their school report cards to dodge possible sanctions for underperforming,” said Kippers.
- Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his like-minded majority of GOP lawmakers must decide how to balance a projected $280 million deficit against a court ruling that held the state’s K-12 public education funding system is “inadequate from any rational perspective.” The second-term governor has cut education funding by $500 million, while enacting tax cuts of $1.1 billion that benefit mostly high-income earners. Brownback has said he plans to continue the tax cuts to increase revenue and attract new jobs.
- Michigan Gov Rick Snyder, who slashed K-12 funding by $2.2 billion during his first four years in office, and state legislators are pinning their hopes on a ballot proposal that would generate an additional $30o million annually for public education through a sales tax hike. Adding to the urgency of the school funding shortfall is a recent report from the state’s department of education that found the number of school districts operating at a budget deficit rose to 57, up from 52 the year before. The sales tax ballot measure goes before voters May 5.
- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, under whose tenure per pupil education funding has dropped to its lowest level since 2007-2008, promised during his inauguration speech this month to raise education funding. The Florida Legislature, in response to anger from parents and educators regarding overtesting, is also expected to take up changing its assessment system so that the number of tests students take is reduced.
- Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wants to eliminate the cap on vouchers, now at $4,800 per student in first through eighth grades. The move would increase the percentage of private school tuition the state would cover at some schools. The cost would be about $4 million a year. “To the extent that he promotes vouchers and charter schools, that is catnip to the Republican base,” Robert Dion, chair of the political science department at the University of Evansville, told the Indianapolis Star.
- In Missouri, a state senator has filed a bill that would eliminate teachers’ right to due process, tie teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests, and assign grades to individual schools based on the performance of the student body.
Many of these governors and legislators ran on a platform of moderation, common-sense solutions and looking out for the interests of children, working people and families. Educators nationwide certainly plan to do their part to hold them to their word, said Karen White, a former Michigan teacher and national political director for the National Education Association.
“Educators are not shy when it comes to the needs of their students,” said White. “So regardless of who’s in office, we will advocate and speak out for our students and for public education. The future of our students should be a concern shared by everyone — educators, parents and elected officials alike — no matter which political party you belong to.”