When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
Governor Scott Walker was out of town, giving a keynote address at the American Federation For Children summit in New Orleans, when state Republicans came up with a last-minute revision to the state’s education budget, including a plan to siphon millions of dollars in public money into private schools.
In a dramatic, late-night hearing on Tuesday, four outraged Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee confronted twelve impassive Republicans, demanding that they explain how the state, after making massive cuts to funding for public education over the last several years, could afford to pay private-school tuition for families who choose school vouchers.
“If you can’t fund our current system of public education, which is your Constitutional obligation,” said Representative Chris Taylor, Democrat of Madison, “don’t put money into private schools.”
Walker’s Presidential ambitions, and the backing of the powerful school choice lobby, cast a long shadow over the hearing.
As Representative Taylor pointed out, the American Federation for Children spent $866,000 on political races in 2014 to create what the group’s lobbyist, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, calls “a school choice majority in both houses” of the state legislature.
The school choice lobby is now immensely powerful in the State Capitol building and a major force behind Walker’s run for President.
American Federation for Children chairwoman Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick DeVos have personally contributed about $250,000 to Walker, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
A recent article in the Wisconsin State Journal under the headline “Scott Walker could set himself apart in 2016 with voucher expansion” points out that school vouchers, which use public education funds to cover the cost of private-school tuition, are popular with the conservative Republican base and could give Walker a leg up in the Republican Presidential field.
But expanding school vouchers is extremely unpopular with the people of Wisconsin.
So, after months of packed public hearings around the state, in which community members poured out their concerns about a combination of deep cuts to education funding and the proposed school-voucher expansion, the Republican leaders of the Joint Finance Committee decided to skip further public debate and come out with a brand new, unvetted proposal on Tuesday night at 6:40 p.m.
Democrats were given exactly one hour to read the twenty-nine page text.
“Barely two minutes a page,” State Senator Lena Taylor, Democrat of Milwaukee, fumed.
“It’s just an affront to democracy,” said Heather Dubois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, which helped organize public hearings on the budget all over the state.
“Unprecedented numbers of people testified at the public hearings. Unprecedented numbers of school boards and administrators wrote open letters, encouraged constituents to contact legislators. And about what? In the end we really had no idea what would be debated today.”
“It’s insulting to people,” Bourenane added as she sat in a coffee shop near the Capitol during the one-hour break. “Why produce a budget and call for public hearings if there is not even an opportunity to debate?”
Among the provisions of the bill, which passed out of committee near midnight on a straight party-line vote:
• A much-touted “restoration” of school funding cuts proposed by Governor Walker, but, at the same time, a statewide voucher expansion which will direct much of that funding to private schools.
• Special-needs vouchers for disabled children, an idea opposed by every disability-rights organization in the state.
• Apples-and-oranges testing requirements that hold charter and voucher schools to a different assessment standard than regular public schools.
• A provision allowing teachers to become licensed based on work experience if they hold a bachelor’s degree.
• A phased-in takeover of high-poverty, low-performing Milwaukee public schools.
Joanne Juhnke, policy director for Wisconsin Family Ties, a statewide organization that works with families of children and youth with emotional, behavioral and mental health needs, called the special-needs voucher plan “deeply disrespectful.”
Intense opposition from disability-rights groups repeatedly defeated previous attempts to pass special-needs vouchers, she pointed out.
Private voucher schools are not required to abide by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.
“Students lose all IDEA rights and protections. Meanwhile, public schools whose doors are open to all our kids continue to lose resources as voucher programs proliferate,” Juhnke explains. So the voucher proposals are “risky for students who take them and harmful for the vast majority of students who don’t."
Tempers flared and a strong racial component to the debate emerged as the committee discussed Milwaukee.
Republicans on the committee could barely contain their contempt for Milwaukee State Senator Lena Taylor. And she made no effort to reign in her disgust with them, accusing Republican legislators of gross unfairness, hypocrisy, and “raping” the children of Milwaukee.
“Connect the dots. You are creating the pipeline to prison,” Senator Taylor said.
Representative Dale Kooyenga, Republican of Brookfield (a Milwaukee suburb) and Representative John Nygren, Republican of Marinette (near Green Bay) rolled their eyes.
Representative Kooyenga said of Taylor’s use of the word “rape,” “I just find that sick.”
“Education is the Twenty-first Century civil rights battle,” Representative Kooyenga, who is white, instructed Senator Taylor, who is black. He dismissed her outrage at the $89 million she said was siphoned out of Milwaukee Public Schools by the school voucher program.
The problem with Democrats, he said, is that all they want to do is raise taxes.
“Money, money, money, money, money—folks let’s talk about outputs. Because that’s what matters to our children—outputs,” Representative Kooyenga said.
SAT scores and graduation rates have improved over the last four years, especially for black and Latino students, he added.
Representative Gordon Hintz, Democrat of Oshkosh, pointed out that those outcomes are likely the result of years of high-quality education produced before Wisconsin slashed funding for schools.
“We are second only to Alabama in the deepest cuts to per pupil funding,” said Representative Chris Taylor, pointing to per pupil spending that went down by $1,000 from 2008 to 2014. “ I don’t think that’s a distinction that we should be proud of.”
“Our plan is going to talk about opportunity, flexibility, and accountability,” Representative Kooyenga said.
Representative Nygren objected that the Democrats wanted to revisit policies of four years ago, when the combination of school funding cuts and the dismantling unions kicked off historic public protests.
“We stand by our reforms,” he said.
One by one, the Democrats on the committee introduced motions to increase school funding, provide more services for kids, and slow the pace of the voucher expansion (which, under the Republican plan, will grow by 1 percent of each district’s enrollment per year until 10 percent of students in a given district are on vouchers, at which point the cap is lifted.)
One by one the Democrats’ motions were defeated on a straight party-line vote.
The actual text of the Republicans’ ominibus education bill wasn’t even read until 10:25 pm, when Senator John Erpenbach, the good cop to Senator Lena Taylor’s bad cop on the committee, asked in a jocular tone whether it might be possible to read the bill “for those keeping score at home.”
Democracy itself seemed to be cracking up.
First, there was the contempt for the democratic process Bourenane mentioned—all those people who testified and came to hearings, for what?
Then there were the money interests—the huge school choice lobby and its shadowy influence.
Representative Nygren waved that away, implying that it was uncouth to bring it up.
“You know, typically we don’t do what you guys have done here, accusing people of taking special interest money. So I’m going to do a little fact check: You said one group gave $800,000—another group that generally supports Democrats spent double that.”
Presumably Representative Nygren was talking about the teachers’ unions, whose influence was decimated in 2011 by Walker’s public-employee-union-busting Act 10.
Senator Erpenbach summed up Nygren’s response as, “I know you are but what am I?”
Most glaring was the fact that the state legislators were reneging, as the Democrats on the committee kept pointing out, on their Constitutional obligation to fund public education.
“This is not Armageddon for public schools tomorrow,” Senator Erpenbach said. “But we are on that road. We are taking away that opportunity. Too bad if you are left in a public school ten years from now.”
The whole Joint Finance Committee session consisted of a series of bills that heaped punishment on the poor, instead of aid.
The committee passed drug testing for unemployment assistance and food stamps recipients, with no funding for treatment. And it increased funding for incarceration, adding beds in prisons.
An argument broke out when one Republican on the committee was granted an exemption from cuts to the third-shift guards in prison towers.
“The hypocrisy!” Senator Taylor blurted out.
Waupun was exempted from the cut, while Democratic districts got no such special consideration.
“I get that this is a partisan committee,” Erpenbach said, “but this is going too far.”
It was more than that, though. Partisan rancor under Walker has metastasized to become a huge, ugly tumor on the state. But worse is the abandonment of an entire class of citizens.
Nowhere is this more profoundly clear than in education.
The stranding of low-income kids, the pilfering of the money set aside to educate them by unregulated, private interests, the abrogation of the state government’s constitutional responsibility to provide for their education, is the most dramatic assault on the ideal of a fair, democratic society.
That overwhelming sense of unfairness sent Dr, Darienne Driver, superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools—out of the room, head down, tears in her eyes,.
‘Its not like we don’t know what makes a successful school. I could show you 100 of them,“ Milwaukee Public Schools mom Jenni Hofschulte said.
What’s really at stake here is what drove the advocates seated in the hearing room to quiet tears, and Senator Taylor to angry confrontation—the kids to whom the state is breaking its basic promise of opportunity and decent care.
You only need to look at the Milwaukee voucher schools to see the sheer hucksterism behind school choice. Seven out of ten of the very worst performing schools in Milwaukee are voucher schools. I’ve visited some of them. They are horrifying.
Like the payday lenders and rent-to-own joints in the same neighborhoods, they exist to make money from the poor.
Unlike other communities around the state, which have been passing a raft of refereda, just to keep their schools open, in Milwaukee, “our levy is maxed, so our school board can’t recommend a referendum.,” said Hofschulte, who is community engagement coordinator for Parents for Public Schools in Milwaukee.
“We don’t have a way to raise more money, and our property tax base is so low compared to our suburban counterparts,” Hofschulte added.
Looking sad, she talked about a successful program to bring adults into low-income schools to give poor children the kind of basic care higher-income kids take for granted.
“We have people in school to rock kids, because they haven’t had that. And they need it. This stuff they are proposing is not going to help.”
If Milwaukee becomes a “Recovery School District” like New Orleans, as state Republicans are proposing, it will mean closing schools and firing teachers.
“Displacing students that already live on the edge—this is the way we solve their problems?” Hofschulte said. “We should be encouraging our own school district to wrap our arms around children and fill them up.”
Instead, “now we’re saying we are going to take these children and turn them over to uncertified teachers,” she added. “This is going to hurt really bad tonight.”
Here is the kicker: Department of Public Instruction data shows that 80 percent of new voucher students in Wisconsin already go to private school.
“It’s such a hoax,” Bourenane said, “this idea that this helps kids in crappy public schools. It just helps kids who are already in private school, and allows private schools to expand.”
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-Chief of The Progressive.
Image credit: Politifact