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.

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Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.