A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 2

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I am posting some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights at NPE’s Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Yesterday’s post and today’s describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if parents, teachers and community united across an entire state were to insist that the state fund its schools adequately?  Well, advocates in Wisconsin are doing just that.  As a bit of context, remember that Wisconsin has the nation’s oldest and one of the largest voucher programs and that the Bradley Foundation, located in Wisconsin, has historically been among the most lavish funders of the school privatization movement that drains tax dollars out of the public education budget.

Today, however, the Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda across Wisconsin. Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains: “The Wisconsin Education Coalition is the hub for education advocacy in Wisconsin. We are a project of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Our work is supported by voluntary contributions of our partners around the state… Our partners don’t always agree on every issue or policy, but our common ground is always rooted in our deep commitment to the success of every student in every school.”  The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.

Launched last summer at the Wisconsin Public Education Network’s 4th Annual Summer Summit, the #VotePublic Campaign has invited, “all supporters of public schools to make public education a focus of all elections—local, state and national. Knowing where candidates stand on issues impacting our public schools is essential to electing strong supporters of our students. #VotePublic is also a challenge to hold our elected officials accountable for making votes that benefit our students and public schools once elected.”

The #VotePublic platform demands fixing the school funding formula “to prioritize student needs over property values”; working for funding fairness; restoring funding including the state’s obligation to meet mandated costs for special education; raising standards for licensure of educators and providing hiring incentives; making private and privately-operated schools receiving tax dollars fully accountable; and forcing the state to pledge not to expand the state’s already large private school tuition voucher program.

In Wisconsin, advocates have set out to reframe the political conversation. Besides spreading thousands of yard signs and postcards across Wisconsin announcing the campaign’s theme: “I Love My Public School & I Vote,” the coalition has packed its website with accessible information to educate the state’s supporters of public education. Posted there is toolkit with easily reproduced materials   There are also facts and figures and copies of public speeches and legislative testimony from the organization’s leaders.

And there are explanations and graphs including one that is particularly applicable for the Wisconsin gubernatorial election in two weeks. Governor Scott Walker has been trying to brand himself “the education governor” because the legislature raised school funding this year—a budget he signed. But the urgency of the need for more funding this year also reflects on his leadership, “In 2011-12, lawmakers reduced district budget limits by 5.5%, which resulted in an average decrease of $529 per student to districts’ budgets.”  Even this year’s budget increase won’t bring the state back up to its educational expenditure level before Walker’s cuts. The 2011 spending reduction was unprecedented, as was another Scott Walker priority—Act 10—the 2011 law to destroy public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Public Education Network is nonpartisan; it does not endorse candidates.  But it seems likely that it’s #VotePublic campaign could be instrumental in swinging the fall election to the other candidate for governor—Tony Evers, a lifetime educator who has, since 2009, served as Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.