Scott Walker's School Voucher Overreach

On Monday Scott Walker delivered a remarkably inane speech to an audience of school-choice advocates in Washington, DC. He began by reading from the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You'll Go. (If you know anything about the politics of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, you know he's rolling over in his grave.)

Walker went on to tell his audience at the American Federation for Children, including billionaire school-choice activist Betsy DeVos, who funds voucher efforts around the country, that "every kid deserves to have a great education because they each have limitless potential." Never mind that Walker's current budget proposal cuts nearly $900 million from the public schools--the biggest school funding cut in state history.

Walker also gave a shout-out to disgraced former state assembly speaker Scott Jensen--now an adviser to the American Federation for Children. After being indicted for campaign violations in Wisconsin, Jensen has gone on to play an instrumental role in connecting Wisconsin Republicans with national school choice groups' cash.

As I report in this month's cover story for The Progressive, school choice groups now rival the biggest business lobby in the state when it comes to pouring money into statewide elections.

So it comes as no surprise that Walker is a hero to pro-school-voucher groups, or that his policies are not popular with teachers and public school advocates in his home state.

But what did surprise people was Walker's announcement during his speech that he plans to expand Milwaukee's voucher program to other cities, including Racine, Beloit, and Green Bay, "because every one of those communities deserves a choice as well, and with this budget that's exactly what they're going to get."

"My only concern is that my governor went to Washington, D.C., to talk about this instead of coming to my district to announce it here," state Senator Van Wanggaard of Racine told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Republican Senate President Mike Ellis went further, objecting to being blind-sided by the Governor's speech and adding that he does not necessarily support his governor on lifting the income caps for vouchers, so rich people can go to private schools on the taxpayers' tab:

“We have problems with the elimination of the income threshold because the idea behind this program was to help poverty-stricken students who don’t have the wherewithal to go to private school," Ellis told the Journal-Sentinel's Jason Stein. “This is a complete blowing up of that concept. Throw this (new proposal) in and I have to do some serious thinking about the rest of this.”

Ellis added that he was shocked by the governor's voucher expansion proposal: “I’m amazed at this. I didn’t see this coming,” he said.

As the NEA's new executive director, John Stocks, who is from Wisconsin told me on the phone: "The taxpayers of the state of WI are being bilked."

Stocks marvels at Walkers's chutzpah: "For somebody who claims to be a staunch taxpayer advocate, he's a hypocrite."

Walker presented his plans to create unlimited access to public school funds for families who want to go to private schools as a good thing:

"Having no limits puts even more pressure" on the public schools "to do better," Walker said.

But Republican legislators are facing mounting pressure from constituents who don't want to see Wisconsin's public schools system liquidated. Recall campaigns against six Republican Senators, including Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen, who was quick to back away from the governor's latest plan, are taking a toll on Walker's support within his own party.

"It’s pretty clear that voucher proponents are taking advantage of a new policy environment that resulted from the 2010 elections," says Stocks. "They are making substantial efforts to privatize education in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin." (That's why the governor of Pennsylvania joined Walker on the podium in Washington, DC, to accept the adulation of the American Federation for Children.)

The irony, Stocks points out, is that a new evaluation by Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction recently clearly indicates that students in voucher schools don’t perform as well as students in public schools.

Worse, part of Walker's plan is to remove accountability for voucher schools by eliminating the requirement that students take statewide achievement tests.

You wouldn't know either of these facts if you listened to Walker tout voucher students' graduation rates (but not test scores) in his speech in Washington, or heard him extol the general concept of accountability: "Let's let every parent know who's succeeding and who's not." (How they will know, if Walker succeeds in eliminating the requirement that voucher schools participate in statewide tests is anyone's guess.)

What's the real goal of Walker's stripped-down education "reforms"?

"The real agenda is to dismantle public education through privatization schemes," says Stocks.

That agenda is becoming increasingly clear to voters in Wisconsin--despite Walker's pieties about helping children, and his claim that he reads Dr. Seuss to kids in classrooms three times a week.

Dr. Seuss, who once drew cartoons for the leftwing New York newspaper PM, would have known just what to make of Scott Walker. A lifelong champion of underdogs, "He had a keen eye for hypocrites, bullies and demagogues, and ridiculed them whenever he got the chance," one of his biographers writes.

It would have been marvelous to see what he made of Scott Walker's promise to "improve" education in Wisconsin through massive budget cuts and the transfer of funds to wealthy private-school parents.

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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