Wisconsin’s Massive School Privatization Plan

Public school privatization troops were out in force yesterday in the Wisconsin State Capitol as the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on SB 76, a bill that undermines the authority of local schools boards to approve charter schools, and dips into their pockets to pay for the insult.

The proposal comes in the wake of a failed attempt last session to create a state-wide charter school authorizing board that would have forced local school districts to accept and pay for charter schools they did not want. 

The current proposal is more nuanced, but no less invasive. For charter schools that would operate as part of the school district known as “instrumentality” schools, SB 76 bars a school board from considering the financial impact of a charter school on students in the rest of the district, and removes input from teachers in the decision. It also forces school districts to allow “high performing” charter schools to open new schools in the district whether the community wants it or not.

Emotions ran high during the four-hour hearing on the bill, as public school defenders clashed with charter proponents. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) authored the substitute amendment to the bill, which was only released two days before the hearing. The legislative council memo explaining the meaning of the legalese in the amendment was not available at the time of the hearing, so many people were unaware of what it meant.

In what has become a typical divide-and-conquer tactic of the Wisconsin Republican legislative leadership, the hearing was scheduled at the same time as three other public education-related hearings involving school mascots, scholarships, and a high profile Common Core hearing. 

It was sparsely attended by public education advocates, who wanted their voices to be heard in the Common Core hearing. Most of the people who testified were registered lobbyists for the charter school industry, or people who work in charter schools.

In her opening statement on the bill, Sen. Darling used the frame favored by school privatizers to justify their theft of public resources: failing schools and bureaucracy vs. kids. “This bill gives children the opportunity to attend a charter school that works,” she said. 

When challenged by Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), who called it a “statewide mandate requiring school boards to approve schools whether or not they want to approve them,” Darling replied, "You could look at it as diminishing the authority of school boards, or as increasing the freedom of charter schools to innovate."

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) challenged Darling on the funding mechanism for independent charter schools that reduces general school aids to districts in order to pay for charters. Vinehout pointed out that property-poor districts such as the one she represents are hit even harder since they rely more heavily on state aid than do districts which have high property tax receipts. 

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, state aids were reduced by 1.5% or $64 million last year in order to fund the currently existing independent charter schools in Milwaukee and Racine. An expansion of independent charter schools statewide would take a larger bite out of the ever-diminishing public education budget.

As if hitting the play button on rightwing talking point #729 out of the ALEC songbook, Darling said, “You’re interested in the funding of the schools but I’m more interested in the education of the children. We’re at a point in our history where we have to say charter schools are public schools.” She then went on to say that she agreed that the school funding formula should be changed and that she wished there were more money in the public education budget.

Vinehout called out Darling, who is Senate leader of the state’s budget committee.

Madam co-chair of Joint Finance, it may come as some shock, but there was actually plenty of money in this budget,” Vinehout said. “It spent $4 billion more than the last budget. There was plenty of money to fully fund schools and all of the requests made by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, but that wasn’t done. You had more input into the process than I did.”

Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) agreed: "The fact is there was $500 million in the budget that could have gone to schools but went to roads.”

The most disturbing element of the hearing was the aggressive confidence of charter school and chamber of commerce lobbyists representing both state and national groups, as if their domination of public education policy and budgets were a foregone conclusion. They quoted statistics drummed up inside their own school reform echo chambers about how low Wisconsin ranks on national charter-school friendliness indices, and bemoaned the bureaucratic obstacles posed by the democratic public processes required of local school boards.

Several lobbyists argued that charter schools run by local school districts should be called something else, like magnet schools, since they were under the influence of the inefficient, status quo-supporting school district bureaucracies. In their view, the term “charter school” should be reserved for private schools that receive taxpayer money but are not accountable to democratically elected local school boards.

They argued this even as they hammered home their talking point “charter schools are public schools” (because the kids who attend them are members of the public) and “flexibility comes with strict accountability” (where accountability is exercised every five years when school districts can choose to not renew a contract).

SB 76 adds five new charter-school-authorizing entities to the four already in place in southeastern Wisconsin. The proposal states that any of Wisconsin's state colleges, universities, technical school districts and regional school district agencies may authorize a private charter school operator to open a school without the input, consent or even knowledge of the local school district where it would be located.

Gary Vose, President of the Kettle Moraine School Board said this is a "huge issue" for his district, which just opened an instrumentality charter school centered around the medical sciences. "For an authorizer outside the school district to create an identical school a block away would be detrimental to our school," he explained.

Last month SB 286, a bill authored by the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees that would fully include religious and other private schools receiving funds through the school voucher program in the state-wide school accountability system met with opposition from key Republican legislators

The sudden appearance and hasty hearing this week of the substitute amendment to SB 76, a bill that was introduced last March, may be a signal that some of the opponents of SB 286 are willing to compromise on that measure in exchange for the give-aways included in the charter school bill. No executive session has been scheduled yet for either proposal.

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

Sen. Tim Cullen makes a point while committee chair Sen. Luther Olsen and committee staff look on." Photo by Rebecca Kemble
Sen. Tim Cullen makes a point while committee chair Sen. Luther Olsen and committee staff look on.