Posted by Ruth Conniff on May 23, 2013

Eleven-year-old Lydia Oakleaf, a fifth-grader at Madison's Crestwood Elementary School, helped deliver anti-school-voucher petitions with 16,809 signatures on them to Governor Scott Walker today.

"Please take vouchers out of the budget and give more money to the public schools," Oakleaf said at a press conference in the ornate assembly parlor at the capitol building. Flanked by Democrats in the state legislature, Oakleaf then headed down the hall, pulling a little red wagon overflowing with the petitions, to deliver them to the governor's office and the leaders of the legislature's joint finance committee.

The historic $1.6 billion in cuts imposed on Wisconsin schools in Governor Walker's last budget, coupled with new proposals that freeze per-pupil funding and expand private-school vouchers add up to an attack on public education, petitioners said.

Lori Compas, the wedding photographer who ran an unsuccessful recall race against Wisconsin state senate leader Scott Fitzgerald, came to the capitol to watch the anti-voucher event.

"You come to a town like Fort Atkinson on a Friday night, and half the town is at the game or the school play," said Compas, who recently started a progressive small-business association called the Wisconsin Business Alliance. "You talk about school choice in a small town and people say, 'What choice?' There is one school in a 20-mile radius. To take money out of that one school to send a kid to private school in Milwaukee makes no sense."

Representative Sondy Pope, Democrat of Cross Plains, called Governor Walker's plan to expand private-school vouchers to nine new districts in Wisconsin part of "the Republican assault on the working class, as they continue to cut public education."

Taking vouchers out of Walker's budget--and making the legislature have an up-or-down vote on the idea of expanding them--is a central aim of the petition drive.

Pope warned that Walker could expand vouchers to the entire state "with a stroke of his pen," if they remain in the budget, because of the governor's line-item veto power.

Besides stopping the voucher expansion, petitioners are asking for a $275 per-pupil increase for public school students in Wisconsin.

Under Walker's budget proposal, public school students will get a $0 per pupil increase, but voucher students will see an increase of $1,114, state senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee pointed out.

In Milwaukee, which has had private-school vouchers for 23 years, Larson said, "Time and again, report after report shows voucher schools provide no better educational opportunity than our public schools."

The latest report, from the state's Department of Public Instruction, showed that voucher students did not perform as well as their public-school peers on math and reading tests.

Beloit superintendent Steve McNeal noted that the nine new districts that would be forced to fund vouchers under the governor's plan are all "urban and diverse."

Students from poor families generally have higher needs, McNeal said. Yet the governor's plan takes money away from schools that serve the highest poverty populations. That's on top of budget cuts and funding tied to school report cards that tend to fall most heavily on schools that serve poor kids.

"Education is a way out of poverty," McNeal said. "Our system should not be a way to keep students in it."

Photo by Rebecca Kemble
Photo by Rebecca Kemble

McNeal said his district has lost $22 million due to budget cuts over the last four years.

"We looking at another $6 million in cuts this year," he said. "This just can't keep going. Our ability to serve children effectively is greatly compromised."

McNeal praised the teachers in his district, and touted his district's high-performing schools, its advanced placement classes, its model teacher-coaching and reduced class-size program for low-income children, and graduation rates that have climbed in recent years.

But budget cuts threaten all that, McNeal said. "The low-hanging fruit for us is gone," as far as further cuts in programs and staff.

Denise Gaumer Hutchison, a Green Bay parent, also objected to what she sees as the inherent injustice in the targeting of urban schools.

"The schools in Green Bay are not failing," she said. "It's inappropriate and wrong to be saying that. We're a dynamic, diverse, and wonderful public school system."

Saying she's proud to have two children in the Green Bay schools, Gaumer Hutchison said, "We have to continue to fight for public education."

Representative Chris Taylor of Madison agreed, and mentioned her own first-grade son. Then she introduced Crestwood Elementary student Lydia Oakleaf.

"She’s great at hoola hooping and she plays the ukelele," Taylor said. But she captured legislators' hearts when she testified against vouchers at a recent hearing.

"I'm against school vouchers coming to Madison," Oakleaf said. A hip-hop artist who worked with Justin Beiber came to her school recently, she said. And she is doing a report on the state of Oregon. "These are the programs I'm worried will be cut."

The petition drive continues, and as more signatures come in, they will be sent electronically to the governor and co-chairs of the joint finance committee, Representative Pope said.

Then everyone headed down the hall, pulling the little red wagon filled with petitions.

(For more information, contact GRUMPS--Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools.)

Photo by Rebecca Kemble
Photo by Rebecca Kemble

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Scott Walker’s Sneaky School Voucher Plan."

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