It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

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Tony Evers, Inaugurated as Wisconsin Governor, Faces a Divided State But Has Backing from Strong Public Education Network

In his fine book on the political ramifications of the 2010 Red-wave state elections, The One Percent Solution, Gordon Lafer describes state politics marked by big money and the impact of the Tea Party: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign.  Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds…. In addition, this was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country… Wisconsin’s was the most notorious legislation adopted during this period… Wisconsin’s ‘Budget Repair Bill’ (Act 10) largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees…  (Act 10) marked a singular triumph for the ALEC network.  Not only did the bill embrace principles laid out in ALEC model legislation, but its passage was made possible by an extensive corporate investment in local politics. (Governor Scott) Walker himself is an alumnus of ALEC, and from 2008 to 2012 he received over $400,000 in campaign contributions from ALEC-member companies. In addition, forty-nine members of the 2011 Wisconsin legislature were ALEC members….” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-49)

Yesterday, January 7, 2019, Tony Evers, a Democrat, was inaugurated to replace Walker as Wisconsin’s  governor, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature remain Republican—and ALEC-dominated.

Some are encouraged by the new governor’s cabinet picks.  On Sunday, reporters for the Wisconsin State Journal called Evers’ cabinet picks pragmatic: “Gov.-elect Tony Evers’ Cabinet roster points to a pragmatic approach aimed more at building consensus and managing agencies than fighting ideological battles or transforming how agencies operate, according to both Republican and Democratic observers.” Most cabinet appointments must be approved by the state senate, so we’ll wait to see whether Evers’ choices are acceptable to a highly ideological legislature.

Before his election as Governor, Evers was Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction; as a new governor he is permitted by Wisconsin law to choose his own replacement without required senate confirmation.  He has announced he will appoint Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who has been serving since 2001 as an assistant state superintendent. Public school supporters are encouraged by his choice.  Stanford Taylor was formerly a school principal at two elementary schools and a middle school in Madison, where at one time she was president of the local teachers union. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that when Evers named Stanford Taylor, he presented her as “a thoughtful leader… She is known and respected throughout the education community for her commitment to equity and her work to help all students reach academic success.” The Wisconsin State Journal’s report also quotes the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, “who praised the pick. ‘I think she’ll do a great job as superintendent.'”

As he left office, Scott Walker signed lame duck bills designed to curtail Evers’ power after he is in office. Many have predicted infighting and gridlock. But so far Evers has been upbeat and proactive. As the departing, lame-duck legislature debated bills to curb his power, Evers and his staff in the state superintendent’s office traveled across the state for a series of People’s Budget Listening Sessions to focus citizens on what must be his first priority in office—the next state budget. The press blurb Evers released after the first listening session, which attracted 230 people, begins this way: “Green Bay — Governor-elect Tony Evers, Lt. Governor-elect Mandela Barnes, and transition policy staff heard from Fox Valley residents who attended the first “Building the People’s Budget” event at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  Governor-elect Evers and his team are focused on building a budget that reflects the values and priorities of the residents of Wisconsin…. Transportation, public education, healthcare, and jobs were among the highest priority issues for attendees in Green Bay.”

Evers has already announced one budget priority. Wisconsin Public Radio reports: “Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers… wants Wisconsin property tax bills to show how much people are paying to support private voucher schools. The plan is one of many Evers will introduce as part of his first state budget, which will be the first proposed by a democratic governor in Wisconsin in eight years… ‘At some point in time as a state, we have to figure out whether we can afford two or three separate allocations of public schools,’ Evers said in an interview Wednesday. ‘People in Wisconsin don’t know how much school districts are losing because of vouchers and how much is being deducted from their aid. They need to know that so that we can as a state have a good discussion about what’s involved with the voucher program.'”

One thing Tony Evers can count on—even in his divided state where gridlock is anticipated: support from a tightly organized statewide network of public education advocates. The Wisconsin Public Education Network and its executive director Heather DuBois Bournane regularly update hundreds of public school activists and even encourage a network of volunteers to submit columns to their local newspapers.

In a recent column published in the Appleton Post Crescent, Jane Parish Yang, James Bowman, and Nancy Jones explain the importance of helping citizens understand Evers’ priority issue—the financial loss experienced by public school districts as money is redirected to Wisconsin’s statewide private school tuition voucher program: “The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, the statewide voucher program is one of three privatization programs in Wisconsin…  The WPCP was added to the budget in 2013 with no public hearings…  As more people seek the voucher payment, costs have increased statewide—from $3.2 million in 2013 to an estimated $54.6 million in 2018-19 for a total of $139.5 million during that time period… A close look at the ‘choice’ program reveals that most parents in the WPCP do not exercise choice. They simply seek a payment from the state for their child’s private school tuition. Of the students currently receiving a voucher, 77 percent attended private school last year.  Only a minority transferred from a public school. Consider the effect of the WPCP on the residents of one community, the Fox Cities. For the current year, 552 vouchers were issued to residents of the community’s six school districts… The cost is substantial: six years of vouchers in the Fox Cities have cost local taxpayers $13,379,651.”

The damage to Wisconsin public education during Scott Walker’s tenure has been devastating.  It will be fascinating to watch Evers, who knows education from his years as state superintendent, try to leverage the power of the governor’s office behind improving public schools—with the backing of the massive and organized Wisconsin Public Education Network.

Positive Developments for Public Education in Tuesday’s Election

Here are some Tuesday election results which will make a difference for public schools. Look at yesterday’s POLITICO Morning Education for a more complete summary of the election results for candidates who had made public education a priority and for the results of a broad array of education-related ballot issues.

Ballot Issues

Arizona Proposition 305, which would have expanded participation in a controversial Education Savings Account voucher program, failed by a 2:1 margin. The failure of Proposition 305 means that the enrollment cap on Arizona’s controversial neo-vouchers will not be lifted; the program will not be expanding. The Associated Press reports: “Arizona voters have rejected a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program criticized as a move to drain money from public schools and give it to rich parents to fund their kids’ private school tuition.  Proposition 305 was placed on Tuesday’s ballot after educators collected enough signatures to block the 2017 expansion championed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.”

Proposition 305 was designed to block Governor Ducey’s 2017 expansion of a much smaller program.  Ducey’s plan—blocked when Proposition 305 was defeated—would have made all Arizona students eligible for the education debit-card program, but would have capped participation at 30,000.  Even with the cap, public school supporters explained, the vouchers would have further collapsed an already meager state education budget.

Kudos to Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots coalition of educators and parents who collected enough signatures to get Proposition 305 on the ballot and who beat an Americans for Prosperity-funded court challenge to block the measure. A recent state audit confirmed that the program Ducey was trying to expand has been almost a joke. The state’s education department uncovered that the state has been unable to impose even minimal regulation over the supposed “educational” services parents purchased or tried to purchase with their Education Savings Account debit cards.  The Arizona Republic explains: “The Auditor General found some parents used the ESA cards for transactions at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers.  Auditors also found repeated attempts by some parents to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed and can result in getting kicked off the program.  The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents’ spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics, and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house.”

In Maryland, Education Dive reports that voters approved a constitutional amendment to use casino revenue to create a supplemental education fund which is projected to grow to over $500 million by 2023.

In a more discouraging turn of events, however, Education Dive adds that voters in Colorado turned down Initiative 73, which, “would have raised $1.6 billion for a Quality Public Education Fund. The funds would have gone toward teacher salary increases and funding for preschoolers, gifted and talented students, and English learners.”  The measure would have amended the Colorado constitution to increase income taxes for households and corporations.

Education and Governors’ Races

In Wisconsin, after a governor’s race focused on education, the state’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers beat incumbent Scott Walker, who cut taxes and the public education budget in 2011 and who passed a public sector right-to-work law in an effort to undermine teachers’ unions. The Madison Capital Times summarizes Evers’ resume: “Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools.  He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield, and Verona.”

For several years, parents and educators have been organizing across Wisconsin to condemn cuts in public education funding and the diversion of state education dollars to the nation’s oldest private school tuition voucher program.  What began in the 1990s as the Milwaukee Voucher Program has now grown statewide. 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. The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.  In recent months activists mounted a nonpartisan campaign that plastered the state with signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools… And I Vote.”

Public education loomed as a central issue in a number of other governors’ races.  In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker triumphed over incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner, the driving force behind the lawsuit that launched the Janus case, aimed at undermining the fiscal capacity of public sector unions—including teachers unions—and recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Rauner has never been a supporter of fair or adequate funding of public schools. In 2017, he vetoed the state budget only to have his veto overridden by the legislature.  Weeks later, he created a crisis at the beginning of the school year by vetoing the school funding formula, again overridden by the legislature.

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, whose education ideas closely match what have been the disastrous tax-cutting, school-starving policies of the previous governor, Sam Brownback.

And in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was elected governor. A member of the American Federation of Teachers and a public school parent, Whitmer opposes the DeVos ideology that has dominated Michigan for too long. Her platform is built on undoing the policies of DeVos-funded Republican administrations.

National Teacher of the Year Elected to Congress

Education Week reports that Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was elected to Congress, representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District.  Her district encompasses Newtown, the site of the 2012 school shooting.  Hayes has deplored the idea of arming teachers: “I worked in a high school with 1,300 children.  I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in that building.  I would never want to have to explain to a parent that I did not lock my desk… or ‘I’m not sure how your child got ahold of my gun.’ ”  Hayes also understands the needs of school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.  She was raised by her grandmother in public housing and was herself a teen mother: “Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences… They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”

What We’ll Need to Watch in Upcoming Months

This post covers only a limited number of major statewide offices.  It will be important to watch what happens across the 50 state legislatures, which were at the center of educators’ efforts to involve themselves in policy making after teachers’ walkouts across several states last spring to protest the collapse of their states’ education budgets. The National Education Association’s Education Votes website reports on the scope of these efforts across state governments: “An analysis by NEA revealed nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats, and an additional 100 educators ran for top state or federal seats in Election 2018.  A bulk of educators come from states that experienced historic #RedForEd walkouts this spring: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. In fact, Oklahoma led the charge with more than 62 educators who were on the general election ballot… The primary focus of NEA’s electoral efforts this election cycle was on state races because education policy is decided by state legislatures and public education funding is a primary responsibility of the state.”

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.

The Will of the People Doesn’t Seem to Be with Trump and DeVos on School Privatization

On Tuesday, Tony Evers was elected by Wisconsin voters to his third term as state superintendent of schools, and he wasn’t merely re-elected.  It was a tsunami.  Evers carried 70 percent of the vote and his opponent, Lowell Holtz, only 30 percent.

Why is Tony Evers’ re-election as Wisconsin state superintendent of schools so remarkable?  Well… Wisconsin is one of 25 super-majority Republican, trifecta states: Governor Scott Walker is an outspoken, far-right Republican, and both houses of the legislature boast huge Republican majorities. Wisconsin is the home of the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee, then Racine, and, in 2013, expanded statewide.  It is the state where, back in 2011, Governor Scott Walker and his legislature severely limited collective bargaining for public employees including teachers. It is a state whose legislature is now also considering an ALEC-designed plan for Education Savings Accounts—yet another kind of school vouchers. It is the state where Governor Walker tried to re-write the mission statement of its flagship university to emphasize job training and delete this clause: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”  And it is the home of Reince Priebus.

So what happened in Tuesday’s  election for state schools superintendent? Here is Scott Bauer of the Associated Press explaining the election of Evers over his opponent, Lowell Holtz: “The win keeps Evers in place as the only Democratic-backed statewide official in a meaningful office. Even though the race is officially nonpartisan, Evers had strong support from Democrats along with state and national teachers’ unions who favored his positions in support of increased funding for public schools and opposition to private school vouchers… Evers and Holtz disagreed on almost every major issue that’s come up in the campaign. Evers opposes expanding the private school choice program and supports Common Core academic standards, increasing funding for public schools and addressing teacher shortages across the state… Both candidates supported Walker’s budget sending $650 million more to schools. But they disagreed on Walker’s requirement that the bulk of that money be tied to schools that require employees to pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs. Evers opposes the provision, while Holtz backs it.”

Unlike our national education secretary, Betsy DeVos, both Wisconsin candidates brought some experience working in public schools, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “A Plymouth native, Evers, 65, worked as a teacher and principal before joining the Department of Public Instruction. Holtz, 59, worked as a parochial school teacher, police officer and principal, and has served as superintendent in the Whitnall and Beloit school districts.”

Meanwhile…

While the public school guy, Tony Evers was winning in Wisconsin with 70 percent of the vote, Betsy DeVos went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and advocated school vouchers for families who are perfectly content with the schools provided by the U.S. Department of Defense for families on military bases. Valerie Strauss covered DeVos’s visit to Fort Bragg and provides the background on these schools: “More than 73,000 students attend 168 Defense Department schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity, an agency that runs pre-K through 12th grade education programs for stationed military families. At Fort Bragg, N.C., there are eight schools that run from pre-K to eighth grade, with students attending high school off the military installation.”

It turns out the folks at Fort Bragg were not so impressed with Betsy DeVos’s proposal for school vouchers. A PTA president in one of the local pre-K-8 schools said: “I feel like public, private and charter schools need to be playing by the same rules….  and making sure the public system is up to snuff for our military children.”  She added that parents would like a public high school added right on the base instead of any kind of voucher program. A spokesperson for the Military Impacted Schools Association said: “Rather than distributing scarce resources in the form of a new voucher program, the Federal Government should be making good on its obligation to all federally impacted school districts.”

And on Tuesday, the same day as Wisconsin’s election, Donald Trump expressed some impressions about education at a town hall event in Washington, D.C.  He tried, not very convincingly, for a “shock doctrine” tone—implying that because things are so terrible, we need to privatize.  Valerie Strauss shares his comments: “Why are the numbers so horrific in terms of education and what happens when somebody goes through school and then they can’t read?”  Then he added that public education in American cities is “rough.”   By contrast, “(S)ome of the charter schools in New York have been amazing. They’ve done incredibly well.  People can’t get in, you can’t get in.”

On the one hand, we have Donald Trump’s wandering thinking about education and Betsy DeVos’s relentless and tiresome dogma, and, on the other hand, there is the political will of Wisconsin’s voters, 70 percent of whom voted for the public schools advocate. Here is a statement from a North Carolina lawyer and politician that perfectly describes the disconnect between what happened in Wisconsin on Tuesday and the education-speak of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “DeVos’s clueless testimony at her confirmation hearing was an embarrassment to billionaire dilettantes everywhere, but ‘alternatives’ to public schools remain wildly popular with what Bernie Standers calls ‘the billionaire class.’ Most Americans are more skeptical. Americans don’t regard public schools as creeping socialism or public school teachers as union thugs, and don’t support looting public schools to pay for charters or private schools.”

Beware These Three Governors, All Republican Presidential Contenders

Campbell Brown is the far-right, former CNN anchor who has become an advocate against teachers’ unions and due process protections for teachers.  She has now founded a so-called news site, The Seventy Four.  Reporters for Politico call it a “news advocacy site.” There are, of course, questions about objectivity in Campbell Brown’s venture, both in possible biases in the opinions expressed and in the selection of topics to cover.  For example, The Seventy Four has begun broadcasting debates on the topic of public education policy among the Republican candidates for president. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, to my knowledge, not been invited.  The first of these debates, co-sponsored by The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children—Betsy DeVos’ organization that promotes school vouchers, took place this week.  Not surprisingly, the candidates declared themselves devoted to far-right education doctrine, and the program was set up to affirm the far right opinions of the candidates who appeared.

It is my plan to concentrate more deeply on the race for President in a few months when November 2016 is closer.  In the meantime, however, it is important for those of us who share a concern about the future of public education to be very clear about the candidates who have significant records on public education.  Three of the Republican candidates—whose ideas have been covered in recent weeks in the mainstream media or in reports from organizations that support public education instead of privatization—brag about education “reforms” as the centerpiece of their records as governor.  This post will explore these three governors’ records to provide some balance to what you may have heard in the recent event staged by Campbell Brown and Betsy DeVos.

There is Ohio’s current governor, John Kasich.  In a recent piece at the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant covers Kasich: “Given the current crop of Republican governors bidding for the presidential nomination, it is difficult to pick which has been worse on education policy… But the effect Governor Kasich has had on public education policy in Ohio is especially atrocious.”  In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss summarizes Kasich’s record on education: “Kasich has pushed key tenets of corporate school reform: expanding charter schools… increasing the number of school vouchers… (implementing) performance pay for teachers… evaluating educators by student standardized test scores in math and reading…. Meanwhile, the Ohio Education Department in Kasich’s administration is in turmoil.  David Hansen, his administration’s chief for school choice and charter schools resigned… after admitting that he had unilaterally withheld failing scores of charter schools in state evaluations of the schools’ sponsor organizations so they wouldn’t look so bad… Under his watch, funding for traditional public schools—which enroll 90 percent of Ohio’s students—declined by some half a billion dollars, while funding for charter schools has increased at least 27 percent, with charters now receiving more public funds from the state per student than traditional public schools…. If Kasich’s goal for his reform efforts was to close the achievement gap, it hasn’t worked…. Ohio has the country’s ninth-largest reading gap between its highest-and lowest-performing schools, as well as the second-largest achievement gap in math, and the fourth largest gap in high school graduation rates.” This blog has covered Ohio education policy extensively in regular posts.

Of all the candidates, Jeb Bush has the most extensive and damaging record on public education, as he and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have radically expanded charter schools in Florida, expanded vouchers, promoted A-F rating systems for schools, and promoted privatized on-line academies and the expansion of contracting for school technology.  This blog has summarized Bush’s education record herehere and here.  Recently Business Insider confirmed Bush’s boast at the early August, Republican presidential debate: “As governor of the state of Florida, I created the first statewide voucher program in the country.”  Business Insider reports: “Bush… was not over-selling his accomplishment.  In 1999, under his gubernatorial oversight, Florida became the first state in the nation with a statewide voucher program.”  In an extensive recent report for Alternet, Jeff Bryant traces Bush’s expansion of charter schools across Florida, beginning in 1996 with the launch of Liberty City Charter School in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.  Bryant traces charter school growth across Florida, a history replete with closures and the promotion of  charters tied to key legislators. Bryant concludes, “Since introducing Florida’s first charter school to Liberty City, Jeb Bush has come to refer to his education efforts in the state as ‘the Florida Miracle,’ and his education leadership will no doubt be trumpeted as one of his signature achievements during his presidential campaign.”  But, Bryant interviews Dwight Bullard, the current elected state representative of the district that includes Liberty City: “Bullard tags Bush for introducing a ‘plethora of bad ideas’ to Florida’s education system, including instituting a school grading system that perpetually traps schools serving the most struggling students with an ‘F’ label, and opening up communities to unproven charter schools that compete with neighborhood schools for funding. ‘What he started was something that would harm the most struggling schools.  Grading them, robbing them of resources, closing them down.  Doing undue harm to the exact people who need the help the most.'”

Finally there are Scott Walker‘s ties to ALEC.  Brian Murphy’s stunning article for Talking Points Memo not only exposes Walker’s record as governor of Wisconsin, but it is among the clearest exposes I’ve read of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the lobbying organization that the Internal Revenue Service continues to grant not-for-profit educational status, despite a long and courageous effort by Common Cause to get ALEC’s IRS status adjusted.  Murphy reports that Scott Walker has been one of the nation’s leaders importing ALEC’s model laws to his state, Wisconsin: “voter ID laws, so-called ‘right to work’ laws, attacks on private and public sector unions, attacks on clean air standards and sustainable energy, pro-charter school bills, attacks on college accreditation and teacher certification, laws proposing to centralize rule making on energy, pollution, power plants, state pension investments, tort reform… food labeling….”  These laws “seem to pop up in different state capitals seemingly simultaneously, with the identical legalese backed by the same talking points and even the same expert witnesses. ALEC is often the reason.”

Murphy explains just how the American Legislative Exchange Council works: “Commonly known as ALEC, the group is somewhat unique in American politics.  It boasts more than 2,000 members of state legislatures, the vast majority of whom are Republican.  And at its annual meetings and other sponsored retreats and events, it pairs those state lawmakers with lobbyists and executives from its roster of corporate members.  Together lawmakers and private interests jointly collaborate on subcommittees—ALEC calls them ‘task forces’—to set the group’s legislative agenda and draft portable ‘model’ bills that can then be taken… to legislators’ home states to be introduced as their own initiatives.  The private sector members of these task forces have veto power over each committee’s agenda and actions.  ALEC’s agenda, therefore, always prioritizes the interests and voices of its donors over elected lawmakers.  ALEC doesn’t publish a list of either its corporate members or its publicly-elected legislator-members.  It doesn’t allow members of the media to access its conferences.  And it doesn’t disclose its donor list.  Much of what we know about the group comes from periodic voluntary individual disclosures….  Operating as a 501(c)(3), the group claims to be an educational outfit that provides nonpartisan research to lawmakers for their ‘continuing education.’  Because it is allowed charity status under the tax code, ALEC’s donors can write off their membership dues and contributions.  Legislator members pay annual dues of $50, while according to leaked documents, corporate sponsors pay between $7,000 and $25,000 per year…  (I)t’s an organization that facilitates intimate and discreet lobbying opportunities where donors have access to a self-selecting set of willing accomplices drawn from the nation’s fifty state legislatures.”

Murphy’s article does not emphasize public school policy.  Murphy traces Walker’s promotion of ALEC legislation for privatization of prisons—the priorities of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, and most notably his successful legislative initiatives to curtail public sector unions and eliminate “the ability of unionized public employees to bargain for wages or benefits.” “Walker has continued to spring ALEC-inspired legislation on Wisconsin’s citizens and lawmakers alike.  In March, Walker signed a so-called ‘Right to Work’ law that makes union dues voluntary for private sector workers in the state.”  He has also expanded charters and vouchers and, right in the budget, imposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools.

One-Party Government Undermines Education and the Common Good in Ohio and Wisconsin

First it happened in Ohio.  Earlier this month, Ohio’s governor John Kasich used the power he is given in Ohio law to veto line items in the state budget—which an all-Republican House and Senate had approved.  Kasich’s purpose?  To cut taxes.

In policies that affect public education, Governor Kasich used his line-item veto to cut back the hold-harmless school funding guarantee that has ensured that school districts don’t experience a drop in state funding below what they received last year.  Guarantees are needed when a school funding formula doesn’t work very well.  While many districts protected by the guarantee in Ohio are wealthy suburbs that can replace the lost state funds if the guarantee is cut, others are districts like Cleveland and Warrensville Heights, which have been losing students as the population has been reduced by the foreclosure crisis.  Through the line item veto in the the budget, Kasich also eliminated a state reimbursement Ohio provided for years to school districts to replace a local business tax that the state had eliminated.

Stephen Dyer of Innovation Ohio describes the $90.2 million drop in funding for public schools that Governor Kasich accomplished in one night as he vetoed parts of the state budget: “Cleveland is cut the most at more than $13 million.  There are now 114 out of 612 districts that will receive less money in the 2016-2017 school year than the state sent them last school year… Warrensville Heights—one of the state’s poorest districts—will see a more than $1 million cut.  And it’s worse if you look at how schools have fared since the 2010-2011 budget… If you adjust for inflation, there is now $187 million less money for schools than there was in the 2010-2011 budget and 334 districts receive less.”

As if the Ohio legislature itself hadn’t done enough damage during in its spring 2015 session, when it allowed urgently needed regulations for the charter school industry to go unaddressed, despite that passage of very modest oversight looked promising in early June. The Youngstown Vindicator editorialized: “After all, the charter school industry in Ohio is big business… Yes, there was legislation designed to block poorly performing charters from switching sponsors and poorly performing sponsors from sponsoring other charter locations.  But with the investment of millions of dollars in Ohio’s political process by charter operators and others, only the most naive would believe that any legislation aimed at policing the system would be adopted without a fight.”

And then, just at the end of the Ohio legislative session the lawmakers sneaked in a 66 page amendment to a very positive bill to expand full-service, wraparound community schools.  The bill passed without further debate through the Senate and House, and it was signed by the governor in a matter of hours.  The secret amendment that had been folded into this law established a state appointed emergency manager for the Youngstown Schools and any other district rated “F” for three years.  Ohio’s state appointed emergency managers, like those in Michigan, will have financial control and can even abrogate formally approved union contracts.

Wisconsin’s budget, signed by Governor Scott Walker on Sunday night, does the same sort of damage as Ohio’s.

Governor Walker has the same line-item veto as Ohio’s governor, and he exercised the veto 104 times.  Sadly, in Walker’s case, the Wisconsin governor did not line-item veto several measures the legislature had put in the budget.   The state’s own superintendent of public instruction had recommended that Walker veto a plan to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools with the same kind of emergency manager Ohio just imposed on Youngstown.  And the state superintendent had urged Walker to veto, “a ceiling on special-education funding, a scheme to relax teacher licensure, and plans to expand charter and voucher schools,” according to   Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post. Strauss comments on the measures Tony Evers, the state superintendent, had urged Walker to veto: “A number of the measures had no public debate, and were quietly put into the legislation by Republicans, who perhaps hoped nobody would notice that they were pushing the Milwaukee schools takeover, expanding the state’s voucher program, and adding a new civics test as a high school graduation requirement.”  The state takeover of the Milwaukee Schools became law on Sunday night.

The Progressive reports that Walker signed the expansion of vouchers as part of the budget bill: “The voucher plan that expands statewide with this budget combines tax breaks for private school tuition with budget allocations for vouchers.  It lays the groundwork for two separate and unequal publicly funded education systems in the state: one public school system hamstrung by budget cuts, revenue caps, and increasing demands for accountability and ‘teacher effectiveness,’ and another system comprised of mainly Catholic, Lutheran, and fundamentalist Christian religious schools funded with public money either directly through vouchers or indirectly through massive tax deductions.”

Actually the budget Walker signed cuts neither as much funding as he had hoped from the University of Wisconsin system nor from the public schools. The Associated Press reports that the budget brought forward from Wisconsin’s legislative budget committee increased funding for education above Walker’s original budget proposal last winter, scaling “back a $300 million cut the governor wanted to impose on the (state university) system by $50 million.  The panel also rejected deep funding cuts for K-12 public schools….”  Fortunately Walker signed the budget without cuts as deep for public education or for the state universities as he had preferred.

The legislature, however, had incorporated into the budget Walker’s plan to eliminate tenure for college professors in the state university system. Kimberly Hefling reports for Politico: “Specifically the changes allow the University of Wisconsin system Board of Regents—16 of whose 18 members are appointed by the governor—to set tenure policies instead of having tenure protections spelled out in state law.”  The budget also includes “a measure that modifies state law to specify that regents can fire faculty when they deem it necessary because a program has been discontinued or changed in other ways, not just when a financial emergency exists, as it had been spelled out in state law.”

Yesterday Valerie Strauss re-printed a blog post about the Wisconsin budget from Bob Peterson, editor of Rethinking Schools magazine: “The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools.  Among its measures are an expansion of a voucher program that provides taxpayer funding of private schools and cuts of $250 million to the state’s nationally renowned public university system… There is one common theme to Walker’s budget: underfunding public institutions; expanding the privatization of government functions, restricting environmental protections,and decimating workers’ rights.”

Scott Walker launched his candidacy for President yesterday.  John Kasich plans to announce his candidacy soon.  Beware the policies of tax slashers who eschew regulation of the charter industry, who support vouchers for private and parochial schools, who believe in abrogating democracy with appointed school district emergency managers, and who are willing to cut essential public services instead of finding a way to raise essential revenue.

Walker stands out, however, among all the other Republican candidates for President because of his persistent attack on higher education—his eagerness to slash funding, eliminate due process protections for professors, and even shift the mission of the university from preparing citizens to providing job training.