Wisconsin has long been on the cutting edge of the conservative education "reform" movement. The Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee helped launch the nation's first private-school voucher program, and turned school choice into a major national issue, pushing African American parents in Milwaukee out in front of the issue.
Who wants to argue with low-income parents and their kids that they should be trapped in lousy public schools?
Fast forward a couple of decades. Once again, Wisconsin is leading the way on school choice. Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed lifting the income cap on that private school voucher program that started in Milwaukee. So, as Madison school board member Marj Passman puts it, "you'll actually have the poor paying for the rich to attend school."
That shift is not lost on people like state Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee, who has spoken out loudly against Governor Walker's education "reforms" -- which include massive, historic cuts to the state's education budget, lifting the income cap on vouchers, and setting up a statewide system of charter schools that would drain dwindling resources from what remains of our once-great public school system.
A rightwing blog posted video of Taylor talking about the agonizing school choice issue for African American families. At the time, she and 13 of her democratic colleagues had fled to Illinois to prevent passage of Governor Walker's union-busting bill which, among other things, takes away Wisconsin school teachers' bargaining rights.
Blogger Eric Odom misses the point entirely. Calling Taylor a "fleebagger" and a tool of teachers' unions, he dismisses what she says as a "rant against school choice."
(Disturbingly, several rightwing blogs have focused on the tiny handful of African American women in the Wisconsin legislature recently, and posted video that purports to show them acting angry and irrational.)
But Taylor is a star. And what she has to say is powerful because it is the opposite of a one-sided "rant." She urges the Chicago audience to consider the whole picture. She opposes Walker's wholesale destruction of Wisconsin's public school system, she says, "But we cannot afford to pretend like the system we have does not need tweaking, and we cannot afford to pretend that there are not some quality voucher and charter schools."
Some of those high-quality voucher and charter schools are in her district, and she is proud of that, she says. On the other hand, the fly-by-night voucher scandals -- teachers who only have a high school education, a principal who turned out to be a sex offender, and crumbling schools that operate for-profit and offer grossly inferior environments to kids -- upset Taylor. For low-income African American parents, school choice is not a simple issue.
Then there are the inequities that are less visible -- like the hedge fund money that supports the brightest, shiniest examples of voucher and charter schools -- the Waiting for Superman example. "If you look at how much money is being spent per kid -- $30,000 to $50,000 per child," says UW education professor Michael Apple. "They get health care, they get mentors, parental stress help, dental care, college scholarships. If regular public schools did that, they would probably do pretty well, too."
And yet by and large, they don't do better, as a Stanford University study of charter schools shows. The study -- the only comprehensive, national research on charter schools, found that 17 percent of charters outperform public schools. A third do substantially worse than public schools. The rest are about the same.
Still, as Apple points out, "Choice means something much more complicated to minoritized folks." Particularly as public schools are starved. "A lot of people are saying, 'I don't want to destroy teachers or public schools, but I have to do what's right for my kid.'"
"We've got two competing ethics at work: more power for oppressed people, and more money for the public sphere."
Unfortunately, as Wisconsin shows, the ultimate end of the school privatizers is to have less of both.
The school choice issue is part of a broader ideological agenda to kill off the "last vestige of the public sphere that hasn't been totally privatized," as Apple sees it.
Not just Bradley, but an increasingly powerful coalition of political action groups are pouring money into state elections to achieve this end.
In Wisconsin, in the last round of legislative elections, a single school choice group, American Federation for Children, nearly matched spending by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the powerful umbrella group for a variety of business interests in the state, according to data collected by the watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
It is telling that the chief of staff of state assembly leader Jeff Fitzgerald chose to forgo becoming one of the most powerful people in the state legislature to join a school-choice political action group.
All of that helps explain how someone like Republican state Senator Luther Olsen, chair of the education committee, could sit and listen to his constituents tearfully testifying in recent hearings that the education legislation he is helping to push through will destroy their hometowns -- and turn around and vote for it anyway.
As I sat in the education committee hearing last week on bills that will wreak havoc in Milwaukee, strip local control from school districts so a Walker-appointed board can open statewide virtual academies, force rural districts to close their schools, and make ghost towns out of places that used to be thriving Norman Rockwell villages in Olsen's district, I kept wondering why Republican legislators would want to go back home as the people who destroyed their own communities.
Unfortunately, legislators are "far more afraid of their cash constituents than they are of their voting constituents," Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign told me. "We see it on issue after issue."
In education, the cash is lined up against students, teachers, and local communites -- from the inner city to the rural farm towns.
If there's one thing the war on public schools has done, though, it is to pull a huge, diverse group of citizens together.
That is the last, best hope for this most important pillar of our democracy.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Friendly Neighborhood Protesters vs. the Forces of Greed and Destruction."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.