For over two decades, Wisconsin, and particularly the city of Milwaukee, has served as the national laboratory for voucher and charter school policy projects. The Republican sweep of the state legislature and the Governor’s office in 2010 seemed to give carte blanche to those who would tap public education budgets for their own profit-making and religious indoctrination ventures. Three years into the latest phase of school privatization, the project continues with a spate of charter school bills.
Undermining the power of teachers’ unions with the passage of Act 10, which deprived teachers of any meaningful collective bargaining rights and weakened workplace protections, was Governor Scott Walker’s first step toward taking out any effective, broad-based opposition to the dismantling of our public education system. Next came historically large budget cuts that saw schools losing $1.6 billion over two years.
After hobbling teachers and tying the hands of local school districts with yet another resource crunch that would force most of the Wisconsin’s 426 districts to cut programming and increase property taxes to make up for the shortfall, Walker’s allies began to float substantial policy initiatives aimed at dismantling public education.
The most radical of these was SB 22, a bill that would have changed requirements for teacher licensing and created a statewide charter school authorizing board, consisting mainly of political appointees. The statewide board would supersede the role of local school boards in authorizing new charter schools, and could approve schools over local districts’ objections.
But what Walker and the corporate privatizers backing him didn’t count on was the strong objections of Republican legislators outside of the southeastern part of the state, who were genuinely worried about how this would affect their local school districts. A couple Republican senators refused to sign on to SB 22 and it died without being acted upon at the end of 2012.
Despite SB 22’s demise, portions of the bill rose from the ashes and returned to the assembly. Among them is a measure to force the sale of Milwaukee Public School buildings to charter and religious school operators, along with bills that allow relatively well-performing charter schools in the Milwaukee and Racine areas to expand more easily, and another that expands the list of entities that can approve the creation of charter schools. That same bill eliminates school district staffing and oversight of charters, and requires the state to allow charter and voucher schools to use “alternative” teacher and administrator effectiveness evaluations.
Along with these proposals came a series of head-spinning refinements to the rhetoric used by charter school proponents. Propaganda machines, such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools -- funded by the largest corporate foundations on the planet, including the Carnegie, Gates, Schwab and Walton family foundations -- quickly began to dominate the conversation.
“Charter schools are public schools” is one of the latest slogans for corporate interests looking to bleed public schools dry for private gain. Their loose use of the term “public” actually means that the kids who attend them are members of the public, and public funds are used to subsidize them, but the actual school belongs to the private sector.
Voucher and charter school advocates justify hijacking public education budgets by blaming the victim and insisting that bureaucracy-heavy public schools are “failing” children, whose families deserve a “choice” about the kind of schools they attend. The truth is, public education has been systematically starved of resources for at least 20 years. Public schools are legally obligated to serve all children, yet America’s increasing levels of poverty and associated social problems never quite make it into the privatizers’ narrative, even though many charter proponents employ the line “poverty is not an excuse.”
During public hearings on the latest round of Wisconsin’s charter school bills, advocates took this rhetoric one step further, positioning themselves as victims who’ve been harmed by the inequity in funding of what they now term “traditional” public schools and charters.
This new rhetorical front reached its latest peak during the Wisconsin senate committee hearing on SB 76 in October, when Shawn Roberts of Milwaukee Charter School Advocates complained about the “funding gap” between public schools and charter schools. “Charter schools deserve the freedom to continue their programs,” he insisted.
State Assembly Representative Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) apparently received the same talking points. During a recent hearing on the Assembly version of the same bill, he said: “Charter schools are receiving significantly less money than public schools. Wisconsin has the biggest gap between funding for charter schools and public schools.”
Justifying the removal of chartering authority from local school districts, Kooyenga further pronounced that, “Local schools don’t want to be part of the charter school movement because they want to focus on public schools.”
This bizarre pitch for undermining the authority of democratically elected school boards was also made by Carrie Bonk, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association. “School boards are not already using their authorizing ability,” she said. “This takes the burden off local school districts that don’t have the capacity to administer charter school authorizations.”
Governor Scott Walker’s latest budget also laid the groundwork for the creation of separate and unequal school systems: One for public schools, beset by cost cutting, revenue limits and complicated accountability requirements, and another system for private, mostly religious and corporate schools, subsidized by taxpayers but not required to adhere to the same accountability measures.
To make matters worse, Walker’s proposal gives corporate and religious schools priority in the budget over public schools, including guaranteed funding. What remains after these corporations ransack the budget will be divided among the state’s public school districts. That meant a $64 million reduction in aid to public schools in 2013. With charter and voucher expansion plans in the works, this could spell serious trouble for local school districts and taxpayers, who will have to shoulder the added burden of corporate school bloat.
Walker made no bones about giving tax dollars to unaccountable corporate schools when he signed Wisconsin’s budget last summer. “We’re expanding our charter school opportunity to prop up and prove the charter school program in Milwaukee and Racine so it’s financially stable,” he boasted.
One of the big winners in the Republican Party’s push to gut public education is the controversial Rocketship Education corporation, which currently runs eight schools in California and one in Milwaukee, which opened in 2013. According to a report by PBS, Rocketship has aggressive franchise expansion plans and hopes to open 1,600 schools serving up to 1 million kids in the near future.
The Rocketship model is based on high student to teacher ratios, heavy use of computer technology and the hiring of non-unionized, inexperienced faculty trained by Teach for America. Rocketship then points to the standardized test scores of their students, whose days are filled with unending test preparation work, with no art or music instruction at all.
Convicted felon Katy Venskus is the Vice President of Policy for Rocketship Education, and the former chief of staff to ex-Wisconsin state Senator Jeff Plale. She was also accused of stealing thousands of dollars from a lobbying firm she was working for, but that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of school privatizers, who use the connections she has built up in Wisconsin state government to push their agenda. Venskus was also employed as a lobbyist by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce until August 2013, helping raise $2.5 million in local start-up funds for Rocketship’s Southside Community Prep school in Milwaukee.
In her testimony before the Senate Education Committee earlier this year, Venskus spoke to lawmakers about SB 76 as if they existed to serve her personal business interests. “It’s difficult to recruit great people to come to Milwaukee to teach,” she said, pushing the bill’s licensing changes. “There’s a huge disincentive for me to bring great people here.”.
As The Progressive’s editor Ruth Conniff reported recently, some legislators appear to believe that serving the business interests of corporate schools is actually part of their job description. Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olson (R-Ripon) told colleagues during a break in the executive session on SB 76, "We're just doing this for Rocketship."
Despite Wisconsin Republicans rolling out special corporate welfare benefits just for Rocketship, their Milwaukee school is facing a $1.4 million loss for their first year of operation, having only recruited 300 of the targeted 485 kids needed to break even. That’s a fact sure to worry investors, who expect the franchise to return at least $600,000 a year to corporate headquarters.
Falling that far short, even with support from taxpayers, does not bode well for the company’s aggressive expansion plans -- or for Wisconsin students.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Katy Venskus is currently employed by Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC). Her relationship with MMAC actually ended in August.