Wisconsin, led by extreme-right Governor Scott Walker, demonstrates how one party state government can execute a compromise. In February, Walker proposed cutting $127 million out of the budget for K-12 public education. Last week the Republican dominated state legislature put back a good part of that money. Then the legislature re-directed much of it away from public education to private and parochial schools.
Here is how Jessie Opoien of the Capital Times describes what happened: “The co-chairs of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee said on Tuesday its Republican members have reached an agreement to provide an additional $200 million for K-12 education than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his two-year budget. The funds will restore a $127 million cut next year that was proposed in Walker’s budget, and will provide an additional $100 per pupil in state aid the following year.”
Except here’s the catch, according to Wisconsin Public Radio: “Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee filled Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cut to public schools… but they also changed the way the state pays for school vouchers. From now on, public and private voucher schools will both be competing for the same pot of money. In the first year of the budget, that means voucher schools will get $18 million more while public schools get $18 million less.”
An Associated Press report explains the details. The plan would lift a 1,000 student cap statewide on the number of vouchers and let any public school student apply. Students in grades K-8 would receive $7,210 from their local school district to attend a voucher school. School districts would have to provide $7,856 for any high school student. In the 2014-2015 school year more than 3,500 students applied for a voucher, indicating that the new legislation would rapidly expand school choice beyond the current 1,000 student cap. Like other states with voucher programs, Wisconsin does not require a student to have been enrolled in a public school before applying for a voucher. This means that students already enrolled in private and parochial schools could qualify for public funds to underwrite their private school education.
Ruth Conniff of The Progressive enumerates the provisions that will expand privatization across Wisconsin:
- “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….
- “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.”
Conniff adds that what is proposed for Milwaukee is a sort of Recovery School District like the one in New Orleans. It would take over so-called failing schools and very likely lead to closing schools and firing teachers.
Democratic members of Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee proposed their own plan that would have invested in public education, but the final vote was along party lines. Because Republicans are in the majority in both legislative chambers, their proposal won.