A fundamental struggle for democracy is going on around the country, as a handful of wealthy individuals and foundations pour money into efforts to privatize the public schools. So far, the “school choice” movement has succeeded in setting the terms of the debate.
To the layperson, “school choice” and “education reform” sound like benign policy goals that aim to improve children’s access to high-quality education. But behind these buzzwords there is a coordinated, well-financed ideological attack on the very idea of community support for free, excellent, public schools that are available to every child.
Parent organizations have popped up here and there to resist budget cuts, school-voucher plans, and other measures that threaten their local public schools. But these groups lack the network and organization that the school-choice movement has built so effectively.
The Progressive launched Public School Shakedown in September 2013 to show what is at stake as the rightwing begins to dismantle public education—to follow the money, expose the privatizers, and help parents, teachers, and concerned citizens understand what is going on and connect with each other to stick up for schools. Learn more.
In straightforward, vivid, and comprehensible prose, we lay out the threat to public education and help the ordinary citizens who are not education experts understand what is often opaque:
- Who is behind the drive to privatize public education?
- What are vouchers? Why are they so destructive of public education?
- Are children with special needs and minority and low-income students better off at voucher schools?
- What are the different types of charter schools? How are they different from voucher schools?
We provide a platform for the excellent research already being conducted by university professors, local news organizations, and nonprofit groups. While there are already several excellent resources tracking school voucher laws and their effects by such groups as the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colorado, the National Council of State Legislatures, and the National School Boards Association, there is not yet a journalistic platform that makes this information immediately accessible, or that seeks to “localize” it with articles that put a human face on policy matters where people live.
The Progressive, a national political magazine founded in 1909 by Fighting Bob La Follette, has been a voice for democracy and social justice for more than 100 years. From our base in Madison, Wisconsin, we have made the attack on public schools a particular focus of our reporting.
We have done so for a simple reason: Wisconsin is ground zero for the nationwide school privatization drive.
The first private-school voucher program was launched in Milwaukee by then-governor Tommy Thompson in 1990. The Bradley Foundation, also located in Milwaukee, is a major donor to the national school choice movement, as documented in a report by One Wisconsin Now. Bradley (one of the biggest foundations in the United States, with more than $290 million in assets) has spent more than $31 million since 2001 supporting organizations promoting education privatization, academics providing favorable pro-privatization pseudoscience, media personalities promoting the privatization agenda, and lobbying organizations advocating for privatization legislation. Bradley, the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the Michigan-based American Federation for Children, and a handful of wealthy individuals and family foundations have bankrolled the effort to privatize public education across the country.
In Wisconsin, they have scored a series of successes. The Progressive has covered the rise of “school choice” foundations and lobby groups in our state, which over the last decade have grown to equal the size and influence of the state’s largest business lobby as major players in state politics. Three former speakers of the state assembly are now school choice lobbyists: Scott Jensen of the American Federation for Children, and Jeff Fitzgerald and John Gard—both of School Choice Wisconsin.
In 2011, when Governor Scott Walker provoked a nationwide backlash with his attack on unions, and teachers in particular, The Progressive intensively covered the uprising, which took place only a few blocks from our office. Immediately afterward, we also covered the next biggest thing to happen in Wisconsin politics: the emotional testimony from parents and teachers who packed education committee hearings in the state capitol building to oppose the combination of historic school budget cuts and proposals to siphon public money into private schools that threatened to torpedo Wisconsin’s great public school system and cause schools to close and small towns all over the state to die.
The battle over school privatization in Wisconsin is particularly emotional because parents and local communities have so much to lose. The schools system in Wisconsin has been one of the most highly rated in the nation. Now, especially in rural communities, Wisconsinites are anguished by budget cuts and privatization schemes that threaten to close schools and kill small towns.
The fight to defend public schools became even more urgent when Donald Trump chose school voucher proponent Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. We will continue to marshall our resources and connect with like-minded organizations to present a comprehensive picture of the threat the school privatizers pose to our democracy, nationwide. Join us, get informed, become part of the conversation, and be part of the citizen movement to defend this cornerstone of our democracy—the public schools.