By Jessica Mason and Matthew Rothschild
Thursday afternoon, a group of 75 Wisconsin...
By Ruth Conniff
There has been a barrage of rightwing attacks on teachers and public education this week, which conservatives have dubbed "National School Choice Week." Grover Norquist held a live web chat on Thursday, hosted by the conservative Franklin Center, to sneer at unions and liberals who think "parents are stupid" and don't deserve choice, that only the government should control where you kids go to school. Norquist held out the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, as well as voucher and charter school initiatives in Louisiana and Florida, as shining examples of education done right. Nevermind the copious research that shows deeply troubled voucher programs, fly-by-night academies and poor results in all three of those places. The full-court press on school choice includes photo ops, tweet-ups, town halls, and lots and lots of P.R. by the rightwing spin machine. The Franklin Center, which runs more than 20 rightwing "news" services in state capitols across the country, is deeply involved. The Franklin Center's Wisconsin Reporter used the occasion to make as much noise as possible about the reinstatement of a teacher disciplined years ago for viewing porn in Middleton, Wisconsin, and another teacher in Madison who made rude comments on Facebook about Governor Scott Walker's kids. The message is clear: These cases are supposed to show us that teachers and their unions are venal, corrupt and outrageously indifferent to the needs of children. Wisconsin Reporter's Matt Kittle later appeared on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren, doing his best to turn the local fiasco in Middleton into a national news story designed to smear the reputation of all public school teachers. His Fox News segment ended up in a Franklin Center press release under the header, "Union Priorities Exposed!" Meanwhile, the Franklin Center's other mouthpieces were doing their best to push the rest of the rightwing's anti-public education agenda. The Heritage Foundation, Norquist, Michelle Malkin and Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin were among the national rightwing personalities hosting web chats, tweet-ups and Google Hangouts this week. "Every hero needs an enemy, and someone made the decision that public educators are going to be the enemy," moderate Republican State Senator Dale Schultz of Wisconsin observed. Shultz announced this week that he is stepping down, taking with him the last shred of sanity in Wisconsin's Republican Party. Schultz, who describes himself as "center right," earned the enmity of his party's leaders -- and an aggressive primary challenge -- when he refused to support Gov. Scott Walker's attack on teachers. He didn't go along when Walker ended public employees' collective bargaining rights, or when state Republicans decided to subvert environmental regulations and local control on behalf of the Gogebic Taconite mining company. His affability, seriousness about crafting good public policy and sense that his job is to represent his constituents instead of out-of-state business interests put Schultz badly out of step with the rest of his party. It was Schultz who pointed out that his colleagues' planned to siphon tax dollars into voucher and charter schools even as they slashed funds for public education. In effect, he declared that Republicans were setting up two parallel school systems. "How conservative is that?" he asked recently. "We are trying to duplicate something we already can't afford." Schultz also objects to the generally sour tone many Republicans have toward teachers, and what he calls "loose talk" in the Capitol about how public schools are allegedly "failing." "Failing schools, hell," he said at a recent public forum. "Would you like to take me and show me, in my district, where are the failing schools?" Schultz, like most Wisconsinites, takes pride in his local schools and feels warmly toward the teachers who look after the children in his community. His views could not contrast more sharply with the barrage of rightwing attacks on teachers and public education during National School Choice Week. All that teacher-bashing chatter serves a purpose: Undermining public confidence is a way of softening us up for a final corporate "solution." The package of voucher and charter school legislation currently making its way through the Wisconsin Legislature adds up to a devastating drain on the resources that support our great public school system. It could also enrich certain for-profit education companies. One of the proposals would allow disabled students to attend private schools on the public dime. However, disability rights groups oppose it because it also makes those students give up all their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The same week in December that bill came up, LifeSkills Academy, a voucher school in Milwaukee, closed its doors in the middle of the night. Its owners fled the state with a bundle of Wisconsin taxpayers' money, leaving 66 students without a school. The company kept the tax dollars that covered those kids' tuition, and the couple that ran LifeSkills headed to Florida to open another special-needs voucher school there. This is but one example of the fly-by-night voucher school industry our state is nurturing. In Milwaukee, 18 schools that participate in the voucher program serve a student body that's 100 percent comprised of voucher students. In other words, these private schools subsist entirely on public money. That's a far cry from the image many people have of poor kids using a school voucher as a ticket out of a crumbling urban school to join middle-class kids in a better-performing Catholic school or private academy. Overall, in both Milwaukee and all across America, neither voucher nor charter schools have managed to outperform public schools. Here's how Schultz described the lobbyists of for-profit vendors, who've convinced his former colleagues to take positions at odds with the interests of their constituents, to Jack Craver at The Capital Times: "When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore? You just sit there and take votes, and you're kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money." ------ Editor's note: This article was updated to add a citation to the final paragraph. We regret this oversight. Photo: "Horrified teacher reading a paper," via Shutterstock.com.