There is something horribly fascinating about watching Wisconsin Republicans discuss their plans for our state's school system.
First, they swing the bloody ax:
- The biggest budget cuts to our public schools in state history, nearly $900 million. Kerchunk.
- A bill to create a statewide system of charter schools whose authorizing board is appointed by Scott Walker and the Fitzgeralds, and which will funnel resources out of local schools and into cheapo online academies. Kerchunk.
- Lifting income caps on private-school vouchers so taxpayers foot the bill to send middle- and upper-income families' kids to private school. Kerchunk.
Then comes the really sick part. They candy-coat all this with banal statements about "reforms" that will "empower" parents and students and improve education.
Last week, Walker went to Washington, D.C., to give a speech to school-choice advocates at the American Federation for Children. He started off by reading a Dr. Seuss book, and talking about how "every kid deserves to have a great education."
Then he shocked his own Republican allies back home in the state Capitol by announcing, without warning, that he plans to expand the voucher program from Milwaukee to Beloit, Racine and Green Bay.
Republican Sen. Van Wangaard of Racine and Senate President Mike Ellis objected to being blindsided by Walker's voucher expansion plan, and Ellis backed away from the whole taxpayer funding for wealthy private school families idea.
Luther Olsen, Senate Education Committee chair, also backed away from Walker's sudden voucher-expansion plan, under intense pressure to stop carrying water for a governor whose education agenda looks like a death sentence for his district's schools. But in general, Olsen is doing just as much damage as Walker.
Olsen, the target of an energetic recall campaign, was a cosponsor of Senate Bill 22, to create that statewide charter school board, take charter school authorizing authority out of the hands of local school boards and funnel per-pupil spending to virtual charter schools. The bill would also, according to quite a few teachers, parents and constituents who came out in droves to testify against it, cause mass closures of local schools in rural areas, including Olsen's own community.
"Wautoma schools are bracing for the worst," Patricia Schmidt, a white-haired elementary school music teacher from Olsen's district, told the committee.
The more voters learn about the whole package of Republican education proposals, the more legislators have begun hemming and hawing.
Like Walker, Olsen likes to make banal speeches about helping the children.
At this week's hearing on his omnibus education bill, after weeks of listening to enraged testimony, particularly from Milwaukee, about Republican plans to overturn local decision-making on the sale of school buildings, teacher residency, and, of course, the Walker/Fitzgerald virtual charter schools, he kept talking about how his education proposals enhance "local control."
Olsen and Walker should go on the road together, reciting rhyming verse about helping the children and empowering local communities. They're adorable.
But this is a sideshow. As Wisconsinites are becoming increasingly aware, the real money in state politics is streaming in from a nationally financed campaign to destroy public schools and privatize education. Olsen's second-biggest individual contributor, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign data, is Richard Sharp of the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for School Choice.
The American Federation for Children, which hosted Walker in Washington, D.C., is a spin-off of the Michigan-based group All Children Matter, which has poured millions into phony issue ads in state legislative races and been the defendant in multiple campaign-finance lawsuits, including one here in Wisconsin.
Both groups were founded by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, who brought Walker out to be a star speaker in Washington.
While he was there, Walker gave a shout-out to disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who now works for the American Federation for Children, along with Brian Pleva, who used to run the powerful Republican Assembly Campaign Committee here in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, James Bender, former chief of staff for now-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, is now a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.
It's telling, notes Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan, that top Republican staffers left their jobs just as their party reached the pinnacle of power to work for school choice groups.
With Jensen's help, school choice groups are in contention to be the single most powerful lobby group in the state. In the last election cycle, American Federation for Children spent $820,000 to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce's $1 million.
As Pocan puts it, "the voucher groups are the heavies now. Bankers and Realtors have become the B team."
And the voucher groups will have scored a major victory by liquidating a once-great public school system in Wisconsin. Unless, of course, voters wake up to the Republicans' agenda, beyond their platitudes about helping children.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.