Scott Walker and Wis. School Superintendent Put Public Education Up for Sale

“To be pro-business you have to be pro-education,” said the Wisconsin State Superintendent of public schools, Dr. Tony Evers, in his annual State of Education address in the capitol Thursday.

That statement reflected the tone of the speech delivered to the audience of several hundred state and local elected officials, lobbyists, school district administrators, and a smattering of others, many of whom were dressed in black suits, as if for a funeral.

The mood was indeed somber, broken just once with an enthusiastic ovation when Evers said, “Every citizen should feel alarmed when teachers don’t feel valued or respected in our communities. No other profession deserves more respect. No other profession is more important for securing our economic future.”

The bulk of Evers’s speech described various aspects of how Wisconsin public schools are being geared toward serving the needs of businesses through career and technical education, internships, and on-line learning. After the speech, “Friends of Education” awards were given out. Two of the first three to be given out were to corporations: GE Healthcare of Milwaukee and C.G. Bretting Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Superintendent Evers has participated in most of Governor Scott Walker’s educational reform initiatives. From Walker’s School and District Accountability Design Team that created a new school report card system designed to secure a waiver to federal No Child Left Behind requirements to his College and Workforce Readiness Council that will shift money and resources in the ever-dwindling public school budget toward underwriting business training programs, Evers has been an active, key player.

In last year’s State of Education address, Evers exhorted the public education community to “begin the slow process of rebuilding trust” with Walker after the passage of Act 10, which removed meaningful collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public workers, and unprecedented cuts to the k-12 education budget. I offered the following commentary after that speech:

Any appearance of “working together” under this regime is simply a matter of the powerless trying to keep their jobs, support their families and make their day-to-day work life a little more tolerable by being compliant. Who can blame them? But honestly, how do you talk about building trust with someone whose boot is still firmly planted on your neck?

A year later Walker’s boot remains on the necks of public workers. He has made no effort to engage in the trust-building process. In fact he’s done just the opposite. Last week’s decision by Dane County Judge Juan Colas that Act 10 violates teachers’ constitutional rights to free speech and assembly only prompted Walker to hurl more abuse.

In a typically nonsensical, politically provocative statement released after the ruling, Walker said, “Sadly a liberal activist judge in Dane County wants to go backwards and take away the law-making responsibilities of the legislature and the governor.” Huh? There is nothing in the ruling that takes away anyone’s law-making responsibilities.

The timing of Colas’s ruling of Act 10 as unconstitutional was particularly poignant since Walker had just pronounced September 17 “Read the Constitution Day” in the state. This week he embarked on a Constitution Tour, visiting elementary schools throughout the state. On the final stop, Walker visited Lindbergh Elementary School in Madison to talk about the US Constitution with 4th and 5th graders.

Though he got through it with a straight face, Walker’s discussion of checks and balances of power and the Bill of Rights was shot through with irony, especially given the setting: a school staffed by members of Madison Teachers, Inc., one of the parties to the lawsuit Walker had just lost on constitutional grounds.

Walker spent a half hour in the classroom with Robert Parker, Assistant Director of Old World Wisconsin, who was dressed up as Senator Robert Morris of Pennsylvania. They entertained questions and described different aspects of the constitution. Click on this entertaining video to see Walker’s attempt to explain the Connecticut Compromise and proportional representation to the kids.

After his time in the classroom, Walker answered questions from the handful of journalists present. On the Colas ruling, he further displayed his ignorance by saying the Wisconsin Supreme Court held up Act 10 last year and that he was certain they would do it again at the end of the appeals process.

But the Supreme Court only ruled on the process of the bill’s passage, not its contents. The question was whether or not open meetings laws had been violated when Sen. Scott Fitzgerald amended and rammed the bill through committee. The court ruled that the legislature is self-governing and they did not have jurisdiction to rule on the legislature’s compliance with its own laws.

Walker also mentioned that he hoped to “build off” Act 10 moving forward. Some fear that means right to work legislation. It could also mean further privatization of schools by expanding voucher programs and promoting charter schools.

In his address on Thursday, Superintendent Evers spun the Walker agenda for public education this way: “It’s an exciting time to be in public education. We’re changing what children learn, how they’re taught and tested, and how schools and teachers are evaluated. The scope and pace of change is unprecedented.”

While all that fast-paced change may be exciting for the politicians and corporations that have a seat at the decision-making tables, the people who are most directly affected by them have almost no voice. School children themselves have never had a say in how public education policy is made, and parents have only token representation at the most local level. But historically, teachers have been part of policy discussions through their unions. Now that unions have been so profoundly disempowered, there is no force countering the seemingly inevitable plunge of public education into the ranks of commoditized public goods to be bought and sold on the market.

Once local school boards and teachers unions are effectively cut out of the decision-making picture through local tax levy limits and union busting, the massive $33 billion biennial state public education budget is ripe for the corporate picking. Evers’s plans for the next five years involve purchasing ready-made curriculum aligned to Common Core standards and adopting corporate testing regimes, including software that links students directly to potential employers. And he hopes to increase investments in technology to enter, “the promised land of personalized learning,” which could mean that a rise in virtual charter schools is looming.

In closing, Superintendent Evers said, “I am jazzed about the future. I hope you are too. This school year, and the next few to come, will bring many important, exciting changes to Wisconsin schools.” How all that excitement affects kids remains to be seen.

Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.