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Wisconsin Republicans are at it again, and their knives are out for the state's public school funding.
To wit: Corporate education advocates swarmed the Wisconsin Capitol again earlier this month to promote AB 549, a bill that would radically alter the landscape of how children go to school in the state.
The meeting marked the start of their second attempt to push Wisconsin into handing education dollars over to corporate-run charter schools. Organizations funded by some of the wealthiest families in the country -- like the Waltons, the Gates, the Carnegies and even the DeVos -- have largely led the charge. A proposal during the last session that sought to create a statewide charter school authorization board -- run by political appointees, no less -- failed to clear the Wisconsin Senate.
The new bill would allow 40 new charter school authorizing entities, and remove local school districts' ability to oversee and staff the schools. It would also require the state allow corporate schools to use "alternative" evaluations for teachers and administrators. To top it off, the bill also proposes letting corporate schools expand automatically, provided they show improvement on standardized test scores.
Public school advocates say they are deeply troubled by the bill, particularly its proposal to remove local control over the corporate schools. Their concerns are especially pertinent considering that funding for new corporate schools is taken off the top of all the state aid available to school districts. Against the backdrop of the state's recent and unprecedented cuts to K-12 education funding, a slew of teachers, parents, administrators, school board members and staff from the state Department of Public Instruction all lined up to testify against the bill.
One of the key obstacles for this opposition group is the propaganda campaign corporate school advocates have drummed up to support their position. By cherry-picking key socioeconomic data out and isolating it from appropriate historical context, they make a case that corporate schools help more lower-income African American children graduate than public schools. They neglect to mention that it is those very same public schools, attended mainly by students from lower-income minority families, that are being harmed by corporate interests soaking up the public funding.
They have been hammering this rhetorical attack for more than 20 years in an effort to turn public education funding into a corporate windfall. It has become like a mantra, so much that they now call their cause "the civil rights issue of our time." What the corporate school advocates conveniently leave out, however, are two basic and interrelated facts.
First: The National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that the racial achievement gap between black and white 13-year-old kids was cut in half from 1971 to 1988, during a time when public education funding was growing tremendously. This gap has held steady ever since.
Second: The success of those investments in public education endured despite all the cuts to public schools over the last two decades. And that success can still be seen even in Wisconsin today, despite the state having doubled the number of school children living in poverty between 1997 and 2012.
With those facts as context, what emerges is not a picture of greedy teachers and a bloated, bureaucratic school system that violates the rights of African American children on a whim. Rather, the picture these facts paint is one in which the systematic reduction of public school funding during a time of economic decline forces teachers and school districts to work much harder with fewer resources to meet the intensifying needs of the children they serve.
Despite the obvious links between dwindling funding, increasing poverty and struggling schools, Democrats on the national stage have at times joined their Republican counterparts in getting behind half-measure solutions and privatization schemes. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, have promoted some limited competitive funding for state education programs -- except that the states with the greatest edge are those with the most charter-friendly laws.
Noting this, the author of Wisconsin's AB 549, Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), began his testimony at the Assembly Urban Education Committee public hearing by declaring: "I'm opening my testimony on this bill with a quote from Barack Obama, because I'm desperate. I'm desperate for bipartisan support."
As it happens, Kooyenga needs bipartisan support -- namely because the chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Rep. Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake), adamantly opposes the bill and refused to take it up in his committee. However, he wasn't without support: Every single person who testified in favor of the bill was associated with corporate schools or their associated national organizations. Chief among the supporters was the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which apparently had a hand in writing AB 549.
To Kooyenga, it's a good idea to starve public schools and give taxpayer dollars to corporations because doing so will "shake up the status quo" in education and create an atmosphere of competition. Rep. Mandy Wright (D-Wausau), however, was not buying it. "They don't need more competition, they need adequate funding," the former teacher said. "We already have the best minds in education working in our schools. The state is not meeting its obligation already to adequately fund public schools."
Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) confronted Kooyenga more directly about this, reminding him that he specifically gave the Legislative Reference Bureau attorney drafting the bill permission "to work directly with the National Alliance of Public Charter School (NAPCS) lobbyists." She added that the lobbyists replied on Oct. 22, offering to send out "a press release" on "this bill" and to give a special nod to Kooyenga's leadership. "NAPCS also wanted to offer you the chance to write a guest blog post on charter schools for their blog," she said.
"I want to focus on the substance and you want to talk about politics," Kooyenga replied. However, Kooyenga's blog was posted on the NAPCS website that very same day.
Former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge also spoke in favor of the bill, speaking as author of her own state's corporate school rules. She testified at length about how Wisconsin's current law was worse than having no law at all, because it leaves local elected districts with too much control and oversight over the management of corporate schools. Reichgott Junge urged that Wisconsin lawmakers pass AB 549 to eliminate school district oversight, then urged them to go even further and designate the entire city of Milwaukee a charter zone, "like Washington, D.C and New Orleans."
However, Reichgott Junge admitted under questioning by Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) that she previously served on the NAPCS board of directors, and currently works as vice president of a real estate investment company called the Charter Schools Development Corporation. Her credibility was ultimately sunk when Barnes pulled out the results of a 2012 study (PDF) conducted by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, showing that charter schools do more harm than good when it comes to racial segregation and academic achievement.
Although he's a Republican, Education Committee Chairman Rep. Kestell, a former school board member, spoke eloquently in opposition to the bill. "The Legislature should not be making significant changes to the education system without a grasp of the impacts," he said. "The rhetoric nauseates me. We should not be making decisions based on emotions."
Jennifer Kammerud, a policy analyst with Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction (DPI), added that her agency is opposed to the bill as well. "We shouldn't be having a race to the bottom in terms of how we're funding public education," she said, adding that nobody who worked on the bill asked for the agency's input.
Lawmakers heard other testimony opposed to the bill from parents, school board members, school administrators and other concerned citizens. "This bill is designed to destroy public education, specifically in Milwaukee," exclaimed Marva Herndon, an activist with a group called Women Committed to an Informed Community in Milwaukee. "Kids with severe special needs are disproportionately discriminated against in charter schools," added Anna Mueller Moffit, a mother of three children with special learning needs.
The last few to testify came from the conservative-leaning Kettle Moraine School District in suburban Milwaukee, where homegrown charter schools being supervised by the district are also threatened by this latest privatization bill. "When you take the representative body out of public education choices, the whole community loses," Superintendent Pat Deklotz said. "Until we address the funding formula for public schools, we're going to have problems."