Grassroots Education Activists Emerge in Wisconsin and Indiana to Counter Power of the One Percent

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer outlines the ways in which the far-right has made attacks on public education the centerpiece of its state-by-state tax cutting, union bashing, school privatizing agenda.  Teachers walking out this spring in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado epitomize a backlash against the state-level, Red-wave assault against public education. Lacking visible walkouts and protests this spring, Indiana and Wisconsin have also epitomized the Red-wave policies that have undermined public schools in so many states. This year, even in these states without huge walkouts, organized support for traditional public schools has emerged to push back against the powerful, moneyed interests driving privatization. In Indiana a backlash is budding in November’s Indianapolis school board race, while in Wisconsin, a years-long push back by organized parents across the state has made public school funding the centerpiece of growing opposition to Scott Walker as he runs for re-election.

Lafer explains: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

INDIANA

Indiana has epitomized the impact of explosive school privatization. Summarizing the period between the Great Recession in 2008 and 2016 in its new report, A Decade of Neglect, the American Federation of Teachers describes the impact of the diversion of tax dollars to two privatized systems—a charter sector and statewide vouchers: “In 2002, the state had 11 charter schools and no voucher programs. Currently 80 charter schools enroll some 40,000 students and receive more than $300 million in taxpayer dollars per year, while nearly 35,000 students receive $150 million in vouchers… (C)hanges to the state’s tax code have meant that these three school systems—traditional public schools, charter schools and voucher schools—are competing for less and less tax revenue.”

The Network for Public Education’s Darcie Cimarusti traces the growing damage of school privatization in Indianapolis, which has enthusiastically adopted a plan called Portfolio School Reform. Cimarusti describes what is planned for the upcoming school year in Indianapolis: “When schools reopen in Indianapolis, Indiana in July, the doors of three legacy high schools will remain shuttered… Like many school closures, the recent shuttering of what was once three great high schools would disproportionately impact low-income children of color. Superintendent Lewis Ferebree cited budget concerns and declining enrollment throughout the district as justification. But as the traditional public high schools the community fought to keep open were closed, the district opened a charter high school co-founded by Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and education reform stalwart… Before Daniel’s new high school had even completed its first year, the Indianapolis Charter School Board approved the charter’s request to open an additional location.”

Cimarusti credits the gobbling up of Indiana’s storied public high schools by charters to schools competing against each other in a school district managed under the theory of Portfolio School Reform—a theory of school management being promoted across America’s big cities by the Gates-funded Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea is that a local school board manages a mass of public and charter schools like a stock portfolio by shedding the poor investments and adding promising experiments in an ongoing way.  Portfolio School Reform was imported into Indiana, Cimarusti explains, by a local think-tank, The Mind Trust, which assembled money from large out-of-state as well as local pro-privatization funders: “The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis, Indiana based 501(c)(3)) nonprofit organization, brought the portfolio model to IPS. Over $80 million in local and national foundation money has poured into The Mind Trust’s coffers since 2016, with the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and the John and Laura Arnold Foundation joining the local foundations already supporting Indianapolis’ portfolio model.”  The Mind Trust, whose influence has been growing for over a decade, also boasts support from local philanthropies—the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.  “The Mind Trust enticed national reform entities to Indianapolis, including Teach for America, the New Teacher Project and Stand for Children.” Stand for Children, an Oregon based Astroturf organization, backed a successful slate to take over the Indianapolis school board in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and in 2014 Stand for Children successfully pushed through the state legislature an ALEC model law “to create Innovation Network Schools—schools that are overseen by the school district but managed by private operators. These include privately operated charter schools that gain instant access to existing public buildings and resources.”

This November, a slate of public school supporters is standing for election for the Indianapolis school board to fill three positions currently held by members supported by Stand for Children.  If the pro-public school candidates are elected, they will join Elizabeth Gore, the one member of the board who has courageously stood up against the Portfolio School Reform agenda, to form a majority. There is finally a chance, writes Cimirusti, that Indianapolis voters could take back their schools in November and derail the Mind Trust’s Portfolio School Reform juggernaut.

WISCONSIN

Journalist Jennifer Berkshire describes a public education-driven political upheaval in Wisconsin as Scott Walker fights for re-election in November: “To understand the nature of the movement that is emerging in Wisconsin, it helps to define what it isn’t.  There are no more huge demonstrations of the sort that engulfed the state Capitol building in Madison in 2011, in response to Walker’s infamous ‘budget repair bill.’  After weeks of intense protests, the measure to mostly strip the state’s public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights passed as Act 10 of the legislature’s 2011-2012 session. ‘We tried the big protests and they didn’t work,’ says Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.  ‘What you’re seeing now is that the battle has really gone local and grassroots.’… Today, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is at the forefront of a statewide effort to support Wisconsin’s public schools and the 860,000 students who attend them. DuBois Bourenane and a small army of parents, teachers, school officials and ordinary citizens are shining a relentless spotlight on the $2 billion in cuts made to the schools here by Walker and the GOP-led legislature, and demanding a fix to Wisconsin’s deeply inequitable school funding system.”

In A Decade of Neglect, the AFT summarizes what has happened in Wisconsin since 2008: “Faced with a $3 billion budget shortfall in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the newly elected Republican legislature cut the education budget by $1.85 billion. That same year, Walker signed the first in a series of tax cuts that have ultimately cost the state $4.7 billion. And, at the same time lawmakers made steep cuts in state support for schools, they also enacted limits on the amount of money school districts can raise at the local level.  Wisconsin public schools spent less per student in 2016 than they did in 2008; per-pupil spending was 6.4 percent less than in 2008, after adjusting for inflation.  And, between 2008 and 2016, the state dropped from 16th to 24th for per-pupil spending… Tax cuts enacted by Wisconsin lawmakers have disproportionately benefited the richest Wisconsin residents. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the top 1 percent of taxpayers received a combined tax cut that was nearly 11 times as big as the combined tax cut received by taxpayers in the bottom 20 percent—even though 20 times as many taxpayers were in the group with the lowest income.”

School privatization in Wisconsin has also robbed the public school budget. Milwaukee’s voucher program—begun in 1990—is the nation’s oldest. The program has continually been enlarged, as Berkshire explains: “In 2013, Wisconsin lawmakers vastly expanded the state’s private school voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools. The measure was backed by an aggressive, and extravagantly funded, lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children, the school choice organization started by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.”

In a recent post, blogger Thomas Ultican elaborates on the big-money philanthropic drive that introduced and expanded vouchers in Wisconsin: “The national money flowing into Milwaukee to privatize public education comes from the usual sources including the Walton Family Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and… the very conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.  In 2016, the Bradley Foundation gave generously to ALEC, Freedomworks Foundation, the Federalist Society and Betsy DeVos’s Mackinac Center.  Locally they gave $375,000 to the Badger Institute, $500,000 to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) and  $100,000 each to Schools That Can Milwaukee and Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE). These appear to be yearly gifts.”

Across Wisconsin, however, a widespread backlash has emerged.  Berkshire describes the bipartisan strategy of parents and community members organizing in Wisconsin to defeat the power of the giant, money-driven anti-tax, anti-union and pro-privatization movement: “(T)he post-Act 10 brand of education activism is decidedly, even insistently, nonpartisan… (E)ducation activists here are making the case that public schools, and more importantly the children they serve, should be free from partisan rancor.”

Berkshire quotes Jim Bowman, who leads Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education: “‘We thought that being connected with the Democratic Party would undermine us,’ says Bowman, who also serves as a member of the Appleton Board of Education. The group appeals to… parents and other local residents of both parties who care about their schools and are unhappy about the steady depletion of resources. These ‘mad moms’ are then encouraged to pressure their local officials, through letters of testimony at public events, or by simply showing up at legislative meetings to send a signal that members of the public are paying attention to education policy.  And the more legislators hear from constituents that they care about public education, the better able they are to counter the influence of big donors and the corporate lobby. ‘Our goal is to make public education one of the top issues that legislators are hearing about so that they can’t just ignore their constituents,’ says Bowman”

For decades, as Gordon Lafer documents in The One Percent Solution, corporate school reform has been driven by a massive investment by the One Percent.  Thank goodness for the teachers who walked out this spring to promote the importance of public investment in the public institutions that have historically defined the strength of education in America.  And thank goodness for local activists in the very difficult, ideologically driven Red-wave states like Indiana and Wisconsin—parents and community members who are pushing back.  While public schools are certainly not perfect, they are the optimal way—operated under the law by democratically elected school boards—to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all 50 million children enrolled in public schools across the United States.

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