Posted by Ruth Conniff on March 16, 2011

Using the word "tools" over and over again, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker explained to the press how his budget cuts to public education--approximately $900 million: the biggest in state history--the end of collective bargaining for teachers, and other drastic changes will actually result in a net savings for schools in Wisconsin.

"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."

Predicting a "robust economy" and job growth, he added "As we get on that economic upturn, we'll have the tools in place so money will be going into the classroom and not into excessive benefits packages."

Chanting and singing by protesters in the hallway were audible inside the ornate governor's office. Surrounded by paintings, flags, and carved wood paneling decorated in gold leaf, the governor stood beneath a ceiling panel with gold letters declaring: "The will of the people is the law of the land."

According to a press release from the governor's office, savings may vary: "The estimates may vary depending on existing employee compensation plans and the length of existing bargaining contracts among other unique local factors."

But if districts seize the "tools" and drive a hard bargain with teachers, they can save a lot of money, the governor asserted.

In a separate press conference, Democratic representatives Sondy Pope-Roberts of Middleton and Fred Clark of Baraboo denounced what they described as the governors move to privatize the entire education system in Wisconsin.

The fact that the governor's budget cuts funds for public schools at the same time that it lifts caps on vouchers--so even well-to-do families can use public funding to go to private schools--is a blow against a healthy public education system, Pope-Roberts said.

Clark pointed out that while the governor is increasing transportation funds for highways, the cuts to schools will result in many school closings, especially in rural communities, and in larger class sizes. Furthermore, the budget further exacerbates inequities--keeping more money in wealthier districts and less money in poor areas, while siphoning off funds so upper income people can go to private school.

"We can do a much more fair job with money for schools," he said.

"A good public education system is part of the Wisconsin brand," Pope-Roberts added. "We cannot build our future without it."

Calling the governor's cuts "draconian," Pope-Roberts and Clark emphasized that they would drastically reduce the quality of Wisconsin's public schools.

Furthermore, said Clark, "What we've done with this budget is to set up a secondary system of education with its own rules." Calling the changes in the law that expand vouchers to all income levels and allow charter schools to operate throughout the state free of controls by local school boards "a parallel, private school system," Clark said "It's like two different playing fields. It's not going to be good for kids."

Pope-Roberts connected Walker's efforts in Wisconsin to a national drive to privatize public education.

"We've been hearing about this for years now," she said. "I see Wisconsin as the first domino in a line. As this falls, I see other state hoping to achieve our quote-unquote success . . . by crushing unions and taking public schools private."

Wisconsin has long had a strong public school system--an attractive feature of the state. But it is also an incubator for school reform--particularly in Milwaukee, where the conservative Bradley Foundation has been a big national driver of vouchers and other privatization efforts.

"We started by being the first state to have a voucher school, in Milwaukee," Pope-Roberts said. "Now we will be the first state to . . . basically create charter school districts."

As for the "tools" the governor says he is giving school districts, "his tools are all hatchets," Pope-Roberts said.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "The Costly Brain Drain in Wisconsin."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter