When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
The public outpouring was incredible. People flooded into the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, from the urban neighborhoods of Milwaukee and from tiny towns in the northern and western corners of the state. They came to oppose Republican plans that would wipe out rural school districts, drain resources from city schools, and dismantle an entire statewide system of public education.
They packed a hearing room and two overflow rooms, and waited all day to speak. Hour after hour, teachers, parents, and citizens gave impassioned, often tearful testimony. Jon Sheller, a former member of the Montello school board, and his daughter, social studies teacher Yedda Ligocki, talked about their little town, with 750 schoolchildren. "As in most small school districts," Sheller said, the school "is the heart of the community."
"The athletics, the musicals, other school activities are the life of Montello," added Ligocki.
Governor Scott Walker's unprecedented $900 million cut to school funding, coupled with a scheme to create a state-run system of charter schools, will kill off both the school and the town, they said. Under S.B. 22, the bill they came to oppose, students and funds that used to go to schools like Montello's will be siphoned off to virtual charter schools run by a state board of political appointees.
"There will be no turning back," Sheller said. "Small schools and their communities will wither and die -- and for what? A political maneuver to allow privatization of public education at the expense of Wisconsin's history as a leader in student achievement. This is giving away our future."
Wisconsin is on the leading edge of a national assault on public education. Walker made a big name for himself with his explosive move to bust public employee unions and take away teachers' bargaining rights. Now comes the next phase.
"We've been hearing about this for years now," says Democratic state representative Sondy Pope-Roberts. "I see Wisconsin as the first domino in a line. As this falls, I see other states hoping to achieve our quote-unquote success ... by crushing unions and taking public schools private."
Wisconsin has long had a strong public school system. But the conservative Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee has also been a national incubator for vouchers and other school privatization efforts.
"We started by being the first state to have a voucher school, in Milwaukee," Pope-Roberts says. "Now we will be the first state to ... basically create charter school districts."
Instead of being approved by local school boards, under S.B. 22 these charters would be overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and leaders of the legislature.
The bill would encourage the rapid expansion of virtual charters, which would receive the same per-pupil tax dollars as bricks-and-mortar schools, and could enroll students all over the state.
Walker's other proposals include lifting the income cap for vouchers, so wealthy families could receive public funds to send their kids to private schools.
The war on public schools is part of the conservative dream to "get government down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub," as conservative guru Grover Norquist so memorably put it.
K-12 education is the single largest budget item for each of the 50 states. So it stands to reason that privatizing education is the largest front in the conservative war on government.
Hence the jarring attacks on teachers by Walker and his political allies in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.
But it turns out that drowning students and teachers in the bathtub isn't all that popular with the public.
"I'm seeing this kernel of negativity and meanness in this bill," said Milwaukee resident Lorraine Jacobs in her testimony before the senate education committee in Madison.
As Lisa Scofield, a parent in Spring Green who teaches in the River Valley School District, put it, "This is not about education. It's about money and control, and you are taking it away. How can you even pretend to strengthen education as you dismantle our state's largest democratic institution?"
On the statewide expansion of charter schools, 120 people testified. Of these, only fifteen were in favor, and twelve of those fifteen were people with a direct interest in charter schools.
Republican senator Alberta Darling, the supposed author of the bill, introduced it flanked by its real authors -- state and national charter school organizations.
"These gentlemen represent a massive network," she declared.
Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools testified that Wisconsin "fails to provide autonomy" to charters. David Hansen of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers said S.B. 22 would make Wisconsin a better "policy environment," allowing more charters to open. If they failed, his organization could simply close them down.
This idea that it's no big deal to close down schools is perhaps the biggest disconnect between business-minded school "reformers" and the parents and teachers who came out to plead with their legislators not to destroy the public school system.
"I don't want my children's school in someone's portfolio," said Scofield, objecting to the business lingo used by the bill's proponents. "I want it in my community, with local control."
"I just wonder who is benefitting from this," she added. "Because it's not my kids."
"Charter schools are public schools," the charter advocates repeatedly intoned. John Gee, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association, went even further, saying kids who can't afford private education need a way out of failing schools: "Ultimately, this is a social justice issue," he said, to a chorus of groans.
Gee was referring to historic racial divisions over school choice. When the Bradley Foundation made private-school vouchers into a national crusade, it pushed African American parents in Milwaukee out front on the issue. After all, who wants to argue with low-income, minority parents that their kids should be trapped in lousy schools?
The Madison Urban League's Kaleem Caire testified that S.B. 22 would make it easier for him to open a charter school for African American boys who are not well served by the public schools.
But overall, Walker's education proposals face opposition from both public school advocates and black leaders like Milwaukee's state senator Lena Taylor, who acknowledges that school choice is a tough issue.
"What we've done with this budget is to set up a secondary system of education with its own rules," says Democratic state representative Fred Clark.
If Wisconsin Republicans succeed in setting up their new statewide system of charter schools, Madison school board member Marjorie Passman testified, "those not chosen by lottery will return to the dying embers of our public school system."
"Add vouchers to the picture," Passman said, "and you'll actually have the poor paying for the rich to attend school."
That, in a nutshell, is the vision of Walker and the coalition of interest groups that helped draft his education policies.
There is nothing remotely democratic about it. In fact, it is the brainchild of a network of national privatization think tanks and lobby groups. Just listen to the buzzwords that pop up over and over as Republican governors and legislators across the country attack teachers' unions, cut education budgets, and privatize schools.
Governor Walker used the word "tools" with Tourette's-like frequency during a press conference on his education program.
"We're giving our schools and local governments the tools they need" to make needed reform, he said, which amounts to "a net benefit to school districts."
If districts seize the "tools" and drive a hard bargain with teachers, they can save a lot of money, the governor asserted.
There is something funny about that word "tools."
It popped up again in Ohio, when Governor John Kasich announced a massive 16.4 percent cut to the state's education system. A press release from a think tank called Ohio Education Matters, which helped draft Kasich's plan, praised the governor's education effort, saying it "provides the right tools to help schools meet lower spending levels."
Those "tools" include cutting teacher benefits and "expanding opportunities for digital education." Digital education turns out to be the business of the group's parent organization, KnowledgeWorks, which markets a "portfolio of innovative approaches" to schools in seventeen states.
On the cover of the January 2011 issue of the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council's magazine, Inside ALEC, there is a large photo of a toolbox and the headline "State Budget Reform Toolkit." ALEC drafts boilerplate legislation and pushes a pro-privatization agenda to state legislators around the country.
While there are good charter schools that work with local districts, independent charters are part of the "toolkit" of privatization and budget cutting around the nation. Robert Bobb, emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools, has proposed a massive conversion of the city's schools to charters to deal with budget cuts. The rationale: Replacing all of Detroit's teachers with non-union personnel would save the district money.
Nor are charters better. In Philadelphia, a 2010 federal investigation turned up evidence of rampant fraud and mismanagement in the city's charters. The only comprehensive, national study of charters, by Stanford University, found that only 17 percent outperformed public schools, 37 percent did significantly worse, and the remaining 46 percent were no better. Likewise, Milwaukee voucher students perform worse in state tests than their public school peers. But liquidating state education funds, especially if you don't have to pay union wages or benefits, especially if you don't even have to maintain a physical building, means big money.
On education, money is lined up against students, teachers, and local communities -- from the inner city to little farm towns.
It is telling that in Wisconsin, just as the Republicans won both houses of the legislature and moved into leadership positions, top staffers left state government altogether to take new jobs -- as school privatization lobbyists. "The voucher groups are the heavies now," says Democratic state representative Mark Pocan. "Bankers and realtors have become the B team."
James Bender, former chief of staff for now-majority leader Jeff Fitzgerald, is currently a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.
Brian Pleva, who ran the powerful Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, joined indicted former assembly speaker Scott Jensen at the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children, a spinoff of the Michigan-based group All Children Matter, which has poured millions into phony issue ads in state legislative races. All Children Matter was founded by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos.
American Federation for Children spent $820,000 in the last election cycle in Wisconsin -- almost as much as the $1 million spent by the state's most powerful coalition of business groups, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
School choice groups form, dissolve, and then spring up again with new, patriotic-sounding names in each election cycle, says Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. That way they can remain nonprofits, instead of 527s, and they don't have to disclose their donors.
So there you have it: money and political power bearing down on public school teachers and kids with all the force of a mighty, well-financed, nationally organized lobby.
Patricia Schmidt, a white-haired elementary school music teacher from Republican education committee chair Senator Luther Olsen's district, told the committee "Wautoma schools are bracing for the worst."
Because of budget cuts, Schmidt said, she is driving to nearby Redgranite and teaching 100 extra students. "Our music program is very strong, and many of our students would drop out if they couldn't sing in the choir or play in the band, because they're not doing so well in their other classes," she said. Virtual schools would never fill the gap if her school closed, she added. She pleaded with the senators on the committee to come see the students and teachers for themselves.
Weirdly, bill sponsor Darling, who seemed distracted for much of the hearing, woke up from her reverie and thanked the music teacher for doing such a good job with the kids.
Few politicians want to appear in public being mean to white-haired music teachers.
But at the hearing, Republican state legislators had to sit and listen to their constituents tell them that they are going down in history as the people who killed their hometowns.
It's a pretty damn dramatic problem for Darling, Olsen, and others who are facing energized recall campaigns, thanks to Walker's scorched-earth program.
Drowning government in the bathtub is all well and good until you're the one who has to do the wet work.
So we got the bizarre scene in the hearing room: platitudes from politicians about "reforming" education in order to "help children," and citizens reacting with shock to the reality of brutal budget cuts and a vicious, predatory privatization scheme.
While Darling fiddled with her cell phone and whispered to her staff, Montello's Ligocki tried to describe what is important about local schools and their real, flesh-and-blood teachers.
She talked about her relationship with her high school English teacher and mentor, Miss Maasz.
When Maasz was about to lose her battle with cancer, Ligocki went to see her. "I asked her to tell me everything I needed to know about being a teacher in the few minutes we had to talk," Ligocki said. "She summarized decades of teaching experience with this sentence: 'When you walk into that classroom, your number one job is to love your students, and the ones who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most.' That sentence did more to prepare me for teaching than I could have imagined."
Ligocki went on to describe working in a school where half the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, in an area plagued by poverty and alcoholism. "Many of our students' parents can't or don't give them the care they need," Ligocki said. "I don't just teach my kids, I love them. I raise them."
She talked about keeping extra food on hand for kids who are hungry. She told how she intervened when she saw that they were being abused. She explained how she earns their trust so they are willing to make themselves vulnerable and to try their hardest to learn.
Recently, during a training in online teaching, Ligocki said she asked her instructor, a virtual school teacher, about his relationships with students. "He said it was mostly limited to e-mails and comments on discussion boards."
The same day, she said, she went to a funeral for a beloved local math teacher, Andy Polk, a young husband and father who was killed in a tractor accident.
Students and teachers stood in the rain for two hours waiting to get inside the school for the visitation. "Students made huge displays with poems, pictures, and their favorite Mr. Polk sayings," she said.
"The shortcomings of a virtual education could not have been more obvious that day."
And the value of a strong public school system could not be more obvious than it is now, as we face the prospect of losing it altogether.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Obama's Victories Over Bin Laden and Trump."
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