With Tony Evers’ New Budget, Wisconsin Begins Long Journey to Shed Scott Walker’s Legacy

In Gordon Lafer’s 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, in the first chapter entitled  “Wisconsin and Beyond: Dismantling the Government,” Lafer makes Wisconsin the emblem of what happened in the 2010 election, as corporate lobbies, the Tea Party, and the collapse of state revenue following the Great Recession converged to fuel a Red-state wave that took over state governments:

“Critically, this new territory included a string of states, running across the upper Midwest from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, that had traditionally constituted labor strongholds… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or, where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain.  At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced in both union and nonunion jurisdictions. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.  All of this—deunionization, sharp cuts in public employee compensation and the dramatic rollback of public services—was forcefully championed by the corporate lobbies, who made shrinking the public sector a top policy priority in state after state.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 44-45)

In his fine book, Lafer describes a wave of tax cuts that followed the 2010 election, plus anti-teachers’ union battles and efforts to expand school privatization through enabling charter schools or adding state voucher (and neo-voucher tuition tax credits or education savings accounts).  Lafer points to public schools as one of the institutions targeted by the corporate reformers from state to state:  “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. As a result, in recent years there has been more legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic activity. From 2011 to 2015, at least eight states passed laws limiting the union rights of schoolteachers; nine states increased the use of student test scores for teacher evaluation; seventeen expanded online instruction; and twenty-nine passed laws encouraging the privatization of education through vouchers or charter schools. This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to (a) sudden educational crisis; American students’ reading and math scores have remained largely unchanged for forty years. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

For Gordon Lafer, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin epitomized the corporate takeover of state government. As we enter July of 2019, almost a decade later, Wisconsin has been swept by a significant pushback against the corporate agenda. Walker is now gone, and Wisconsin’s new governor, Tony Evers just signed his first budget. Evers, who served Wisconsin as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction from 2011 until he was elected governor in November, 2018, promised to undo Scott Walker’s record on public education.

It is becoming clear in Wisconsin and many other states, however, that overcoming the corporate takeover of state government and the attack on public education will be neither quick nor easy. Wisconsin’s new Governor Evers is a Democrat, but both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are dominated by large Republican majorities.  At the end of June, the members of Wisconsin’s legislature presented Evers with a budget reflecting Governor Walker’s—not Governor Evers’—priorities.

Eventually, Evers signed the budget presented to him last week by the Wisconsin Legislature, but he said he had considered vetoing the whole thing.  Finally he used what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel identifies as, “the strongest veto powers in the country. This stems from a 1930 state constitutional amendment granting Wisconsin governors partial veto authority that allows the governor to strike individual words and numbers from legislation that appropriates money. That lets governors surgically remove words here and there to get results that are at odds with what legislators wanted.”

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Laurel White explains: “Gov. Tony Evers used his veto pen Wednesday to boost K-12 education funding in Wisconsin by about $65 million in the next two-year state budget. The change was one of 78 partial vetoes Evers made to the $82 billion budget approved last week by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature… The boost to education funding means the state will increase K-12 education spending by about $570 million over the next two years.  The budget approved by the Legislature had already slated a roughly $500 million increase. Evers accomplished the spending bump by increasing per-pupil aid in Wisconsin by $64 per student in each of the next two years… However, the governor also eliminated an $18 million technology grant program within the K-12 budget.  In his veto message, the governor said the funds ‘could more effectively be spent on programs that close achievement gaps.’  His increase and cut combined result in a net increase of about $65 million to K-12 schools from his veto pen.  Even with that $65 million boost, the $570 million schools spending increase is still dramatically less than the $1.4 billion bump he proposed earlier this year.”

For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Annysa Johnson quotes Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, expressing disappointment in the budget Evers signed into law: “The increases are appreciated.  But they’re modest at best…  And they do nothing to move the needle on the radical revisioning of our education crisis that the (Legislature’s) Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding called for a year ago.”  Bourenane represents an encouraging statewide push by parents, teachers, and community advocates for the rejection of Walker’s education policies.

In his 2017 book, Gordon Lafer reminds us just how deeply Scott Walker cut taxes and, subsequently education funding: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

Evers has persisted throughout the budget debate, however, in working to change the narrative—to define again and again what sort of state investments will provide essential support for the most vulnerable children and their schools. He did so again in his explanation of his use of Wisconsin’s veto powers to adjust the Legislature’s budgetary priorities. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s, Johnson quotes Evers describing his reason for signing the budget, which even after his vetoes fails to fulfill his goals for the state’s public schools: “This is only a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget… There’s still more that we need to do. I will not stop fighting for our kids, meaningful investment in our schools and school finance reform.”

Johnson describes additional comments from Evers’ signing statement: “Despite its shortcomings, Evers touted the education budget as significant. In addition to the per-pupil aid, he said it: increases state special education funding by $95 million, the first increase since 2008-09; includes the first substantial increase in revenue limit authority in a decade, meaning districts can raise more money from state and local taxpayers; doubles state support for… mental health programs in schools; and provides nearly $330 million, the largest nominal dollar increase in state general aid since the 2005-07 biennium.”

Wisconsin’s army of public school supporters are justified in their disappointment that Evers was unable to undo Scott Walker’s damage this year. The most recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Wisconsin’s combined state and local funding for K-12 public schools remains 4 percent below what was being spent in 2008 before the Great Recession. But while Evers has persistently worked to frame a new narrative about the public’s responsibility to lift educational opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable children, Evers and his supporters will have to keep up the pressure for considerably longer than this year.

Backing Gov. Tony Evers’ Education Budget Priorities, Wisconsin Protesters Will Walk 60 Miles to Madison

Parents, teachers, and concerned citizens from all over Wisconsin will walk 60 miles to Madison beginning tomorrow. They’ll be demonstrating all weekend to protest the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Legislature’s state education budget and to support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ effort to overcome years of Scott Walker’s budget cuts to the state’s public schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Annysa Johnson reports: “Public school advocates from across the state will embark on a 60-mile march to Madison… hoping to persuade Republican lawmakers to boost funding for K-12 education…. The goal, organizers say, is for the lawmakers to reinstate key components of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ education budget, particularly his nearly $600 million boost to cover special education costs, $58 million more for mental health services, and $40 million more for bilingual-bicultural programs.”

Gov. Evers, formerly Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, knows about the needs of public schools.  After the Legislature—still dominated by Walker’s kind of small government Republicans—rejected his budget proposal and countered with less investment in what Evers believes are necessary programs, the new Governor has repeated his demands for more money, particularly to help school districts serve disabled children in special education and support school districts serving concentration of children living in poverty.

In late May, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Molly Beck reported: “The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted… to put in the next state budget a $500 million increase in funding for schools that provides $97 million in new funding to help cover schools’ special education costs… But Evers made clear the Republican plan for special education funding wasn’t adequate. ‘We’ve had school districts across the state going to referendum for many, many years now, and passing referenda because the state hasn’t done their share… I don’t believe that what is proposed… deals with the issue of students with disabilities in more comprehensive way… I don’t think it’s enough.'”

Beck explains in more detail: “(Luther) Olsen, vice chairman of the budget committee, said the package would raise the percentage of special education costs the state covers from 25% to 26% for the current school year and to 30% in 2020.  Evers, the former state schools superintendent, proposed raising the reimbursement rate to 60%—which would cost $600 million.  Either would be the first increase in state funding for special education in more than a decade… A recent study by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed school districts across the state spent more than $1 billion in district funds to cover special education costs that otherwise would have been spent district-wide.”

Another of Evers’ priorities, a significant increase for school districts which serve concentrations of children in poverty, was not part of the legislators’ budget as of June 17, when Molly Beck updated the details of the Legislature’s education budget negotiations: “Removed from Evers’ K-12 plan—built largely off proposals he made as state schools superintendent—was a plan to overhaul the state’s education funding formula to provide money to schools with high numbers of students who live in poverty.  Evers wanted to increase funding for schools by $1.4 billion, which included a $600 million increase in funding for school districts’ special education costs.  Republican lawmakers also removed (Evers’) proposal to freeze enrollment in the state’s private voucher school systems.”

A Wisconsin Education Association Council update on June 7, 2019 explains the Republican Legislature’s determination to continue supporting school privatization with ample funding for the state’s large voucher program, which uses tax dollars to pay students’ tuition at religious schools: “Analysis of the education budget passed through the Joint Finance Committee… shows that students enrolled in private voucher schools would again receive higher per-pupil payments than public school students. Public schools would be capped at increasing per-pupil spending by approximately $200 in 2019-20 and $204 in 2020-21, while payments for voucher school tuition would increase by an estimated $229 in the first year of the budget, and $275 in the second year.”

In his important book, The One Percent Solution, about the 2010 Red-Wave election that flipped so many states to far-right, anti-government Republican leadership, political economist Gordon Lafer describes Scott Walker’s Wisconsin as emblematic of the anti-tax, anti-public services agenda. Lafer explains: “The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of the 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.  (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

Lafer describes exactly how this has all played out in Wisconsin: “Indeed, Governor Walker… (twice chose) to create budget deficits where none previously existed by instituting new tax cuts devoted primarily to corporations and the wealthy. As the economy improved, Wisconsin ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2013 with a surplus of over $750 million. Rather than restoring badly needed services, Walker initiated a new round of tax cuts; eight months later, the state was facing a $2 billion shortfall for the 2015-17 budget cycle. Throughout this period, critical public services remained severely underfunded. By 2014, the state was providing $1,014 less per student than it had in 2008—the second-steepest education funding cut in the country. (The One Percent Solution, p. 73)

It is worth examining carefully what Wisconsin’s new Gov. Evers is prioritizing as a way to challenge the narrative about public spending. His budgetary priorities emphasize what are among every public school district’s most expensive and essential programming challenges—addressing the needs of very poor children and educating children with disabilities.  Traditionally it has also been the role of state governments (with the help of targeted federal Title I and IDEA funding) to equalize and compensate for the fiscal incapacity of property-poor local school districts to serve these populations. And when the state fails to do its part to fund mandated public school services, local school districts must raise their own taxes if their residents can afford it or cut other essential services. Tax cuts and the reduced services that inevitably follow are one of the reasons we have been watching school teachers across the country on strike this year to protest impossibly large class sizes and the layoffs of nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers.

It is refreshing to watch Gov. Evers be strategic as he redefines Wisconsin’s challenges. And it is wonderful that parents, teachers and public school supporters have organized to stand with their new governor to demand that Wisconsin stop starving its public schools. The budget debate in Wisconsin won’t end until the Legislature produces a budget Gov. Evers believes he can sign.

To keep up the pressure, the Wisconsin Public Education Network is organizing across the state for this weekend’s 60 Mile Walk to Madison. Executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains the urgency behind the group’s effort to support Gov. Tony Evers as he redefines the public’s obligation to invest in the state’s system of public education: “We’re not above begging… We have been on our knees, begging for our kids for the past 10 years, but we’re sick of begging for crumbs, and we’re here to demand more than that this time around.”

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.

Teachers’ Walkouts Define the Danger of the Corporate Agenda to Destroy Public Education

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education.  Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.

Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?…  Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC.  In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)

Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.”  The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.

Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)

The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots.  We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009.  Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.

Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”

The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers.  And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.

Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)

State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post report about four-day school weeks in Oklahoma provides the textbook example of the political phenomenon described by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Here is Emma Brown: “A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week… Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules, nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall….”

Gordon Lafer explains that in the November 2010 election, “Eleven state governments switched from Democratic or divided control to unified Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Since these lawmakers took office in early 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at lowering labor standards and slashing public services.” (p. 2) “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)his 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. Finally, the 2011 legislative sessions opened in the midst of record budget deficits (from the Great Recession), creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible… 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.” (p 44)

Oklahoma was one of the eleven states that turned all-Red in 2011; the others were Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Wyoming.  Today, after the 2016 election, the number of all-Red states has reached 25.  And, while it might seem to the residents of any one of these states that a climate of tax slashing, union bashing, and cutting public services reflects some kind of new trend among their voters, a more intentional national strategy is instead pushing the agenda into their state from the outside. Lafer explains: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized with state legislation written by lobbyists representing national and multinational corporations… In fact, lawmakers… (have been) enacting the agenda of national corporate interests that had spent years preparing for just such a moment.” (p. 49)

Lafer continues: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also broadly unpopular… In this sense, education policy… provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (p. 130)

Who are the corporate lobbies crafting and pushing the anti-tax, union-bashing, anti-public education agenda? “Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (p. 130)  “Furthermore, the corporate agenda is carried out through an integrated network that operates on multiple channels at once: funding ALEC to write bills, craft legislative talking points, and provide a meeting place for legislators and lobbyists to build relationships; supporting local think tanks in the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network to produce white papers, legislative testimony, opinion columns, and media experts; contributing to candidate campaigns and party committees; making independent expenditures on behalf of lawmakers or issues; and deploying field organizers to key legislative districts.” (p. 39)

A primary strategy is tax cutting: “‘The best way to stimulate the economy,’ insisted a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Cato Institute, is ‘to shrink government… lower marginal tax rates, and streamline regulations.’  The corporate right’s exhortations for an unprecedented policy of cutting taxes and services in the midst of recession was not an evidence-based policy and indeed did not yield the economic growth its proponents forecast… There was no reason to believe that tax cuts were the key to economic recovery.  However continuing tax cuts achieved something else; they dramatically—and perhaps permanently—shrank the size of government.” (p. 65)

How has all this affected public education?  “(B)udget cuts were particularly widespread—and particularly devastating—in the country’s school systems. In 2010-11, 70 percent of all U.S. school districts made cuts to essential services. Despite widespread evidence of the academic and economic value of preschool education, twelve states cut pre-K funding that year, including Arizona, which eliminated it completely. Ohio repealed full-day kindergarten and cut its preschool program to the point that it served 75 percent fewer four-year-olds than it had a decade earlier. Pennsylvania also cut back from full-day to half-day kindergarten in many districts—including Philadelphia, which also eliminated 40 percent of its teaching staff…. More than half the nation’s school districts changed their thermostat settings…. Research shows that the availability of trained librarians makes a significant improvement in student reading and writing skills, yet by 2014, one-third of public schools in the country lacked a full-time certified librarian.” (p. 69)

Lafer explores the reasons far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” (p. 129) But he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant: “Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.” (p. 129)

Which brings us back to Emma Brown’s recent piece in the Washington Post about Oklahoma, where parents and teachers are getting used to a reduced school week only four days long: “Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit. Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004-2008. Republicans—who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and the governorship since 2011—have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production… Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget (last) Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets… Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008…. Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013—$44,128—put the state at 49th in the nation…. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines…. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training… is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.”

This week Valerie Strauss published  a reflection by an Oklahoma school teacher, a companion piece to Emma Brown’s report.  Shawn Sheehan is the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. At the end of this school year, he is leaving his position at Norman High School to take a job in Texas. His wife is also leaving her position in a Norman, Oklahoma school to accept a Texas teaching position. Sheehan explains: “(A)t the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job—this job we love very much—by heading out of state… We could stay, but it would cost our family—specifically our sweet baby girl… We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”

Betsy DeVos Defends School Choice, Waffles on Protecting Children’s Civil Rights

Let’s begin with some irony as we consider Betsy DeVos’s comments last week on the speaking circuit. DeVos made what was billed as a major policy address to the convention of the ultra-conservative American Federation for Children, which she founded and whose board she chaired until she became our Education Secretary.  She was, according to Jeff Bryant’s excellent column on the subject, introduced by Denisha Merriweather, among DeVos’s favorite exemplars of school choice. Bryant reminds us: “In Merriweather’s case, exercising school choice meant using Florida’s education tax credit program to attend a fundamentalist Christian academy that presents the Bible as literal history and science, (and) teaches young earth creationism….”

So what did Betsy DeVos say after Merriweather introduced her?  Knowing that Merriweather used her voucher at a private school endorsing young earth creationism, DeVos accused the millions of Americans who support traditional public schools of being “flat-earthers” who need to be dragged by the expansion of school choice “out of the Stone Age and into the future.”

In DeVos’s address to the American Federation for Children, it had been predicted that she would spell out her particular voucher plan which would very likely be modeled on a tuition tax credit program in Florida. But no plan was announced. From DeVos’s omission of any details we can infer that we are probably not going to get a major voucher plan this year because DeVos’s department isn’t ready and because the health care debate has fallen apart and because widespread dysfunction has slowed things down. That is all to the good.

President Trump’s federal budget proposal was also released last week, and DeVos went before a House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education to defend the proposed budget for the Department of Education, which cuts $10.6 billion (13 percent) out of current programming and expands school choice by $1.4 billion. DeVos tried to claim that her department is not stealing money from public school programming to expand school choice, but Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post responds: “If there are cuts to public schools, and there is new money going to school choice, that can’t mean anything else.”

Strauss also reports that, although DeVos admitted that she thinks high poverty schools need more money than low poverty schools and therefore supports the purpose of Title I, DeVos seemed confused.  She appeared to say that high-poverty schools already get more money than low-poverty schools, something that is demonstrably false. After all, Title I was created for the purpose of compensating for grossly unequal school funding between poor and wealthy communities. In almost every case, state school funding fails to make up for the enormous inequity created by the disparate property taxing capacities of local communities.  Title I has always been inadequately funded, and it has never been able to make up the difference.

Much of DeVos’s conversation with the House committee considering the proposed education budget was about the federal Education Department’s responsibility to protect the civil rights of students in schools that receive federal dollars. As she did in her confirmation hearing last January, DeVos again waffled.

Valerie Strauss examines DeVos’s conversation with members of the House committee in some detail.  Strauss shares an interchange between Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and DeVos in which DeVos says the federal government should step back and give more latitude to the states as they design school voucher programs that would receive federal funding: “Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass) said that one private school in Indiana that is a voucher school says it may deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is ‘homosexual or bisexual activity.’  She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not discriminate in that way if it were to accept federal funding through a new school choice program. Clark further asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school were not accepting African American students and the state ‘said it was okay.'”

Strauss reports that, while DeVos said that Title IX protections are broadly applicable, she hedged, “when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students…”

Clark interrupted: “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, ‘that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars?’  Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”

DeVos replied: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs.”

Later, DeVos is quoted elaborating on her belief that the federal government should step back and empower state governments even when federal dollars are involved: “I go back to the bottom line—is we believe parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions, and too many children are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down , one-size-fits-all approach. And that is the focus.  And states and local communities are best equipped to make these decisions.”

Strauss reports that when asked about the U.S. Department of Education’s role in protecting students’ rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos again backed off: “DeVos responded that it should be up to the states to decide how to run their own programs, and then she referred to a tax credit program in Florida, where tens of thousands of students with disabilities attend private school with public money. Florida is one of those states that requires voucher recipients to give up their IDEA rights. ‘Each state deals with this issue in their own manner,’ she said.”

Finally DeVos would not commit to holding private and parochial schools receiving federal dollars through vouchers or the federal Charter Schools Program accountable to the same standards as traditional public schools. When she was asked whether she would support accountability standards for any new federally funded school choice program, DeVos responded: “States should decide ‘what kind of flexibility they are going to allow.'”

At the end of her column, Strauss publishes DeVos’s formal testimony to the House Committee. Here is how DeVos concluded her prepared remarks to the committee: “In total, the President’s budget fulfills his promise to devolve power from the Federal government and place it in the hands of parents and families. It refocuses the Department on supporting States in their efforts to provide a high quality education to all of our students.”

By promoting a state-by-state policy agenda, DeVos is following the playbook examined in detail by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017). Lafer tracks the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council: “ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills.” (p. 13) Betsy DeVos is quite familiar with the agenda of ALEC and its partners such as Michigan’s Mackinac Center. Her husband, Dick DeVos is described as instrumentally  involved in twisting the arms of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and members of the Michigan legislature in 2011 to pass ALEC’s high-priority right-to-work legislation. (p. 82)

Here is Gordon Lafer describing the corporate education agenda being driven across the states by ALEC, Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce and the regional think tanks that are part of the State Policy Network. While Betsy DeVos is careful to frame her agenda in the softer language of parental choice, Lafer would suggest we consider the corporate agenda as the foundation underneath her proposals: “In states across the country, corporate lobbyists have supported a comprehensive package of reforms that includes weakening or abolishing teachers’ unions, cutting school budgets and increasing class sizes, requiring high-stakes testing that determines teacher tenure and school closings, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, diverting public funding into vouchers that may be used for private school tuition, lowering training and licensing requirements for new teachers, replacing in-person education with digital applications, and dismantling publicly elected school boards… Despite prolific claims to the contrary, corporate-led education reform does not represent an agenda to improve American education or expand the life chances of poor urban youth… (T)he corporate agenda would lead to a divided country, where the children of the wealthy will be taught a broad curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers, while the rest of the nation will be consigned to a narrow curriculum delivered in large classes by inexperienced staff—or by digital applications with no teachers at all.” (p. 130)