A Win for Public Education in Wisconsin
Tony Evers, Wisconsin's incumbent superintendent of public instruction, handily won his race against the insurgent Republican candidate, state representative Don Pridemore, in Tuesday's statewide election.
The win, Evers said, showed that Wisconsinites still support their public schools:
"Voters spoke loudly and clearly, affirming their commitment to Wisconsin's strong public schools and calling for a much-needed reinvestment to support the over 870,000 public school kids in our state," Evers said of his 60-40 margin of victory.
Wisconsin is a flashpoint nationally for the drive to privatize public education--an issue that dominated the state superintendent's campaign.
There is a lot at stake.
Governor Scott Walker's notorious $800 million budget cuts to public education last year, and his plans to expand vouchers and create a statewide charter school district that would siphon money from public school districts without input or supervision from local school boards, formed the backdrop to the race.
Even Republican state legislators are uncomfortable with the governor's current budget, which maintains deep cuts to local school districts while expanding a school voucher program that started in Milwaukee to nine new districts.
Last month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a majority of Republicans in the state senate oppose the governor's proposed voucher expansion.
Republican representative Steve Kestell, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, told the Journal Sentinel "that some expansion of school choice would pass. But Kestell said that 'dramatic changes' would be needed to Walker's current education proposals, saying that he had serious concerns about their possible effects on the state's public schools, students and taxpayers."
"At the moment, 'it's pretty hard to defend,' Kestell said of the budget measure," the Journal Sentinel reported.
The drive to privatize Wisconsin's high-quality public school system is part of a nationwide school-choice campaign.
Recently, the Koch brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity has been conducting a bus tour of the state, holding town hall meetings to promote the idea of vouchers and independent charter schools that use public funds to pay for private education.
In Green Bay, a parent who attended one of the Americans for Prosperity events told me that a film touted charter and voucher programs in Louisiana and Florida. "It's weird. This is Wisconsin," she said. "Do we really want our schools to be more like Louisiana and Florida?"
Despite rhetoric about "failing schools" that require private intervention, Wisconsin has the top high-school graduation rate in the nation. Wisconsin students also consistently place in the top three states for ACT scores. And Wisconsin teachers are among the most highly educated and most qualified in the country.
Forward Wisconsin, a nonprofit corporation established to market Wisconsin's assets to corporate executives, was touting high-quality schools as one of our major selling points. Among the "statistics and facts about Wisconsin's great schools" the group promotes on its website:
• Wisconsin ranks first in the nation for its percentage of teachers meeting the standard "highly qualified" under the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
• Wisconsin leads the nation in public high school graduation rates.
• The state's public schools consistently rank in the top 10 for ACT, SAT and Advanced Placement scores, making Wisconsin one of the "eight smartest states."
Just as parents in Green Bay are not charmed by the prospect of imitating the school system in Louisiana, Republican representatives from rural parts of the state are not so keen on the plan to expand the first-in-the-nation private-school voucher program into their home districts.
At a recent meeting of public school advocates, representatives from parents’, teachers’, and local school board groups talked about focusing their efforts on separating voucher legislation from the rest of the state budget. As stand-alone legislation, the voucher expansion would not likely survive an up or down vote.
Tony Evers is right: There is still broad support for public schools in Wisconsin, despite a coordinated rightwing assault.
His reelection, as he promotes increased funding and the rejection of the voucher and charter privatization schemes, shows that the public still values high-quality public schools.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Who Has Standing on Gay Marriage?".
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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