Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Parents whose children attend the public schools in Wisconsin have been getting a barrage of phone calls lately offering "free tuition to send your child to a private or religious school."
"We at School Choice Wisconsin are proud to pay for this call, because we want the very best for you and your child," a woman's voice intones.
The friendly voice directs parents to a website: chooseyourschoolwi.org.
A little online digging reveals that the School Choice Wisconsin website address is registered to the American Education Reform Council -- a group funded by John Walton, of Walmart, to the tune of $1 million between 1999 and 2000, and also funded in part by grants worth hundreds of millions from the rightwing Bradley Foundation.
The American Education Reform Council's political arm has been heavily involved in pushing voucher legislation in Colorado and Michigan; "paycheck protection" (to limit unions' ability to spend money in elections) in California; and a failed Washington, D.C., voucher initiative designed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Why is this group calling parents in Wisconsin now?
Private Operators Want Our Tax Dollars
The calls happen to coincide with the application process for the statewide voucher program created in the last budget, also known as the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. The application period runs through April 21. Even if school vouchers are not available in a particular district, if enough people respond to these robocalls, voucher advocates can use the responses to demonstrate demand.
Ginning up demand for vouchers helps the people who want to expand the program -- which is why the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity is holding pro-voucher events around the state during application season.
But what's wrong with offering "the very best for you and your child"?
Well, for one thing, we know from two decades of experience with school vouchers in Milwaukee that voucher schools are not actually "the very best."
Fly-by-night operators are eager to take the tax dollars that follow your child to public school. In return, they have created schools all over Milwaukee where students perform poorly on standardized tests compared with their public-school peers. Many of those children return to the Milwaukee public schools anyway -- after the voucher schools have siphoned money out of local neighborhoods and into the hands of private business operators.
And some of those operators are truly shady, like the Florida couple that fled Milwaukee in the middle of the night, taking their voucher money with them, and leaving the 60 students of the LifeSkills Academy with no school at all.
Get ready for a lot more hucksterism in the brave new world of school "choice."
Right on the heels of those school-choice robocalls, Wisconsin parents are now receiving postcards in the mail from "eAchieve Academy," "Wisconsin's Leading Online Middle and High School."
In case you are one of those parents who feels that her middle or high schooler does not spend enough of her day online, you are urged to register for an open house to be held on April 26 at the Best Western Plus East Towne Suites.
"Open enrollment closes at 4pm on April 30, 2014," the postcard warns.
The photos of smiling teens in school-like settings are charming. But the Department of Public Instruction paints a less flattering picture of Wisconsin's virtual schools.
According to the state's school report cards for the 2012-2013 academic year, half of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations.
The main virtual schools last year were the McFarland School District's Wisconsin Virtual Academy with 1,964 students, Waukesha's eAchieve Academy with 901 students, Appleton's Wisconsin Connections Academy with 734 students, and Northern Ozaukee's Wisconsin Virtual Learning with 725 students.
But don't be confused by those locations. The beauty of virtual schools is that, unlike your neighborhood school building with its bricks and mortar, its playing fields and cafeteria and gym, they allow you to attend anywhere from the comfort of your home computer screen. And for virtual school operators, that's where the big money comes in. They get the same public money that follows each student to a real, live school with real, live teachers and janitors and coaches and counselors-- but without having to pay any of that expensive overhead.
What a deal!
K12, Inc., the huge, nationwide virtual school operator that runs the McFarland online academy, raked in $848.2 million in profits in 2013 as a publicly traded company, almost entirely out of the public trough.
So as parents are sorting the mail and checking messages and hearing about all these great choices you can make -- free tuition! flexible, individualized learning! laptop provided! -- keep in mind that you are paying for these businesses with the money that used to sustain our public schools, which are still performing better than all of these new, alternative options.
And if we allow the big school-choice interests to suck our schools dry, soon we won't have any good choices at all.
Ruth Conniff is the Editor of The Progressive.
Jim Bender, a former top legislative staffer in the Wisconsin Assembly, wrote the following letter to the editor when a version of this column originally appeared in Isthmus, Madison’s alternative news weekly:
From: bender ...
To: edit ...
Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:19:13 PM
I read with interest your reference to the American Education Reform Council registering our website. Can you provide data to back that up? According to Whois - Susan Mitchell, former President of SCW registered the site.
Here is Ruth Conniff’s reply:
Dear Jim Bender,
Mitchell did, indeed, register chooseyourschoolwi.org.
The "About" section of the web site for chooseyourschoolwi.org is called "About SCW" and links directly to the web site for School Choice Wisconsin.
School Choice Wisconsin lists a phone number used by, and an email domain name registered to, American Education Reform Council.
Susan Mitchell is on the board of School Choice Wisconsin.
The School Choice Wisconsin web site lists the contact SCW@parentchoice.org.
School Choice Wisconsin uses @parentchoice.org as its email domain (as you know, since this is your email, too.)
I stand by my assertion that "the well-wishers who registered the School Choice Wisconsin web site are also known as the American Education Reform Council."
Here is the domain tools info:
Domain ID: D2721540-LROR
Creation Date: 1998-12-10T05:00:00Z
Updated Date: 2011-02-08T19:52:37Z
Registry Expiry Date: 2016-12-09T05:00:00Z
Sponsoring Registrar: Network Solutions, LLC (R63-LROR)
Sponsoring Registrar IANA ID: 2
Domain Status: clientTransferProhibited
Registrant Name: AmericanEducationReform Council
Registrant Organization: AmericanEducationReform Council
Registrant Street: 2025 N. Summit Ave
Registrant Postal Code:53202
Registrant Phone Ext:
Registrant Fax Ext:
Admin Name:AmericanEducationReform Council
Admin Organization:AmericanEducationReform Council
Admin Street: 2025 N. Summit Ave
Jim Bender’s response:
Hmmm. Interesting. I am not sure why an organization that has been closed for a decade is relevant, but that is your call, not mine. It merged with another organization and is now called the Alliance for School Choice.