The news about Scott Walker’s education initiatives isn’t good this week. On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction came out with a damning report on achievement test scores of kids in private “choice” schools.
In Racine and Milwaukee, kids attending private schools on the taxpayer’s dime through voucher programs are performing significantly worse in the Wisconsin Student Assessment System. In Racine, choice school students scored nearly fifteen points below their public school counterparts in reading, and ten points below in math.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators has posted results of its survey detailing the effects of Walker’s 2011-2013 budget, which cuts $1.6 billion over the biennium. From loss of essential learning and support programs to massive teacher losses and increased class sizes, things are looking grim for Wisconsin’s public school kids and the k-12 schools they attend.
All this bad news seemed lost on the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, which bestowed the “Rock Star for Education Reform” award on Governor Walker at a private ceremony in the Concourse Hotel Wednesday. The group of approximately 30 adults and 100 children who “attend” online schools gathered for a lobbying day in Madison.
Seemingly organized and led by Brian Fraley, communications director of the MacIver Institute, the event featured a morning session where WCVSF lobbyist and former state Senator Bob Welch outlined the message he wanted members to send to legislators. Participants were provided with pre-formatted forms on which to fill out their personalized messages. Brian Pleva, government affairs associate for American Federation for Children was also in attendance.
After lunch there was an award ceremony for the "Rock Star of Education Reform" Scott Walker, and for Republican "Legislative Champions" Senators Luther Olsen, Alberta Darling, Leah Vukmir, Mary Lazich, and Representatives Andre Jacque and Jeremy Thiesfeldt. Senator Glenn Grothman and Representative Don Pridemore sent their regrets. All but Olsen are members of ALEC.
Walker and his legislative sidekicks were thanked for getting SB 2 signed into law as Act 114 this past session. The law loosens restrictions and extends deadlines for open enrollment, such that parents can wait longer to decide if they want to pull their kids out of neighborhood schools in their district and enroll them in out of district schools. This directly affects virtual schools since most students who “attend” them do not live in the districts in which they are hosted.
After the ceremony, WCVSF Board Members Julie Thompson, Rose Fernandez and John Meegan took to the stage for a question and answer period with members. But like the rest of the event, this session was carefully stage managed by Fraley. Referring to himself as "the Coalition's IT guy," Fraley arranged the chairs on the podium for the board members, and shouted leading questions from the back of the room, suggesting topics for each board member to speak about.
Rose Fernandez, an early member of the group and a former candidate for DPI Superintendent, the state’s top education job, spent about fifteen minutes regaling the crowd with the ten-year history of the organization. She finished her story by reporting that there are now twenty-six states with organizations like WCVSF, and she is active in “developing leadership” in all of them.
Historian and education policy analyst Thomas J. Mertz wrote about Fernandez’s habitual misrepresentation of herself as an ordinary, grassroots mom during her campaign three years ago. He wrote, “In the version I’m documenting, there is no David against a Goliath; it is more like Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, two heavy-weights, with the advantage in size going to the Fernandez team.”
The MacIver Institute and Brian Fraley have also received some bad press recently. Last week Dustin Beilke wrote an article about the MacIver “Spin Machine” that was published in two different locations and taken down due to threats of lawsuits for libel. The website that originally posted it, Blogging Blue, later published a rebuttal of sorts entitled “A Series of FACTS about MacIver” in which Fraley is called out as a longtime Republican Party operative, and heavy hitters in school privatization are linked directly to the organization.
The Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative also ran an exclusive interview with Fraley about the fine line MacIver was treading by teaming up with the Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity in designing and delivering what amounts to a political campaign for Scott Walker called, “It’s Working.” In that interview, Fraley claims that because there is no specific candidate endorsement, it is not a political campaign, just an issues campaign.
Summoning the troops of parents at the Concourse Hotel, Fraley worked his astroturfing magic. He told the group, "Rose Fernandez is a fixture at the Capitol. When they see Rose they see this big organization. But when they see you, they see parents. Go talk to the legislators about what’s important to your family."
Fraley didn’t tell them to mention the enormous profits companies like K12 Inc. (which operates a for-profit virtual school through the McFarland School District) make at the expense of the rest of the already struggling public school system. Those profits and the anonymous Super-PAC campaign donations they generate are the dirty little secrets of the virtual school industry that Fraley, Pleva, Welch and their legislative champions want to keep hidden behind the innocent faces of children and the earnest appeals of parents who just want what’s best for their kids.
In his Rock Star award acceptance speech, Scott Walker told the gathering, “We’re hoping that traditional public schools can start operating more like virtual, choice and charter schools to be more flexible as to how to operate for the needs of a changing society.”
On Tuesday the Menomonee Falls School District approved 52 preliminary staff layoff notices, even as they voted for an $800,000 upgrade in “technology infrastructure.”
Bigger class sizes, fewer teachers, more computers: Walker’s dystopian vision for Wisconsin public schools may come to fruition sooner than he ever imagined. As his campaign to retain his office against a recall would say, “It’s Working!”
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and is a founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative.