State legislators are busy hashing out the details of Governor Scott Walker's budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But the governor's broad line-item veto powers mean that, even after all the hearings and revisions are over, Walker can rewrite sections of the budget with the stroke of a pen.
This is particularly worrisome for opponents of a controversial effort to expand private-school vouchers to nine new school districts around the state.
At a Friday press conference on the threat to public schools in Wisconsin, Democratic state representative Sondy Pope of Middleton said, "People who think 'Well, I'm safe, because my district isn't part of the voucher expansion,' need to understand that the governor might very well expand vouchers statewide."
All it would take, Rep. Pope explained, would be for the governor to cross out language in the budget requiring that a district have 4,000 students and two "failing" schools. Eliminate those qualifying clauses and, voila -- every school district in Wisconsin will have to put local tax dollars into private schools.
That's one more reason for public-school advocates to lobby for taking vouchers out of the state budget and, instead, insist on an up-or-down vote on separate voucher legislation.
Representative Pope made her comments during a press conference at the state capitol building where the Forward Institute was presenting a study on the impact of school funding on educational opportunity.
"Public schools are not failing our children," the study's author, Scott Wittkopf, declared. "Wisconsin's legislators and policymakers are failing the public schools that serve our children."
The Forward Institute's report, "Wisconsin Budget Policy and Poverty in Education," found that the state is insufficiently funding its public schools. Furthermore, Walker's budget will divert resources from public schools that serve low-income students into vouchers and unaccountable, independent charter schools -- which will make the inequities faced by poor students considerably worse.
The number of school children living in poverty in Wisconsin has doubled since 2007. At the same time, state funding of public education has fallen to its lowest level in 17 years.
Furthermore, the schools that serve poor children have suffered the biggest cuts.
Yet funding for voucher schools will come "directly out of those public schools of highest poverty," the report points out.
That's because, even though low test scores strongly correlate with high-need and high-poverty student populations, Walker has instituted a system of school report cards that punish "failing" schools by reducing their resources, and reward high-performing (and generally affluent) schools with more resources.
Walker's proposed budget expands vouchers schools into districts with two schools with report card scores that "fail to meet expectations.
"This proposal will assure that more schools and districts of high poverty will lose resources," the report found.
Unless, of course, Walker goes for the whole enchilada and uses his line-item veto to take vouchers statewide. This would enrage members of his own party, who are hoping to avoid vouchers in their home districts. Especially in rural areas of the state, where low enrollment makes school funding tight, the money draw from vouchers could mean towns lose the schools that form the center of a local community.
But Walker clearly has national political ambitions, and school privatizers are big Republican funders in Wisconsin and around the nation. If Walker succeeded in voucherizing the entire state, he'd have another major "reform" to add to his resume, after becoming a rightwing star by breaking public employee unions last year.
Funding a whole new, separate school system, through vouchers, at a time of massive school-funding cuts, would have a devastating impact on Wisconsin's public schools, Representative Fred Clark of Sauk City pointed out.
The press conference on public education took place on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, Rep. Clark noted, "one of the most important rulings of our time," which held that "every child has a right to an equal opportunity to education."
"In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," the Court held.
Yet Wisconsin is "beginning to create the kind of unacceptable disparities in educational outcomes" that the Court ruled against in Brown, Clark said.
"As a result of recent budget decisions resulting in education austerity, there is strong evidence that the current public education funding and delivery system in Wisconsin is unconstitutional," the Forward Wisconsin report found.
Private-school vouchers aggravate that disparity.
The Forward Institute report recommended that Milwaukee and Racine -- the two Wisconsin cities that currently have vouchers -- "should be sunsetted by the Legislature in 2024."
"Vouchers show no positive effects," Wittkopf said. "We now have 20 years of data."
A review of test results from the state Department of Public Instruction showed that voucher students perform less well than their public school peers.
The Forward Institute report also pointed to data that shows voucher-school graduates are many times less likely to be proficient in reading than graduates of public schools.
In other words, the voucher program is not working.
From a public policy perspective, it makes no sense at all to expand it.
But the political calculation is something else.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Move Over, Koch Brothers: A Bigger, Darker Rightwing Funder."
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