Sen. Dale Schultz, Republican of Richland Center, is stepping down, taking with him the last shred of sanity in our state's Republican Party.
Schultz, who describes himself as "center right," earned the enmity of his party's leaders -- and an aggressive primary challenge -- when he refused to support Gov. Scott Walker's attack on teachers. He didn't go along when Walker ended public employees' collective bargaining rights, or when state Republicans decided to subvert environmental regulations and local control for the Gogebic Taconite mining company.
His affability, his seriousness about crafting good public policy and his sense that his job is to represent his constituents, not out-of-state business interests, puts Schultz badly out of step.
It was Schultz who pointed out that his colleagues' plans to siphon tax dollars into private schools, even as they slash funds for public education, means setting up two parallel school systems.
"How conservative is that?" Schultz said recently. "We are trying to duplicate something we already can't afford."
Schultz also objects to the generally sour tone toward teachers, and what he calls "loose talk" in the Capitol that our public schools are "failing."
"Failing schools, hell," he said at a recent public forum. "Would you like to take me and show me, in my district, where are the failing schools?"
Schultz, like most Wisconsinites, takes pride in his local schools and feels warmly toward the teachers who look after the children in his community. Contrast that with the barrage of right-wing attacks on teachers and public education generally this week during National School Choice Week.
Wisconsin Reporter used the occasion to make as much noise as possible about the reinstatement of a teacher disciplined for viewing porn in Middleton, and another teacher in Madison who made rude comments about Walker's kids on Facebook.
The message is clear: These cases are supposed to show us that teachers and their unions are venal, corrupt and outrageously indifferent to the needs of children.
Wisconsin Reporter's Matt Kittle appeared on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren, doing his best to turn the local fiasco in Middleton into a national news story that smears the reputation of all public school teachers. Meanwhile, the Franklin Center, which runs Wisconsin Reporter and other right-wing state "news" bureaus all over the country, was pushing the rest of the anti-public-education agenda.
The Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist, Michelle Malkin and Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin were among the national right-wing stars hosting web chats, tweetups and Google Hangouts this week. Oh, and there is Kittle in a Franklin Center press release in a video of his Fox appearance under the header "Union Priorities Exposed!"
"Every hero needs an enemy," Schultz observes, "and someone made the decision that public educators are going to be the enemy."
All that teacher-bashing serves a purpose. Undermining public confidence in our teachers and our public schools is a way of softening us up for a private-industry "solution." A package of voucher- and charter-school legislation now making its way through our state Legislature adds up to a devastating resource drain from our great public school system. It also could enrich certain for-profit education companies.
Among the bills: a special-needs voucher proposal would allow disabled students to attend private schools on the public dime. Disability rights groups oppose it because it also makes those students give up all their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The same week that bill came up, a voucher school in Milwaukee closed its doors in the middle of the night. Its owners fled to Florida with Wisconsin taxpayers' money.
LifeSkills Academy closed without warning in mid-December, leaving 66 students without a school. The company kept the tax dollars that covered those kids' tuition for the full semester, and the couple that ran it headed to Florida to open a special-needs voucher school there.
This is but one example of the fly-by-night voucher-school industry our state is nurturing. In Milwaukee, 18 schools that participate in the voucher program serve a student body made up of 100% voucher students. These private schools subsist entirely on public money. That's a far cry from the image many people have of poor kids using a school voucher as a ticket out of a crumbling urban school to join middle-class kids in a better-performing Catholic school or private academy.
Overall, in Milwaukee and across the nation, neither voucher nor charter schools have managed to outperform public schools.
Dale Schultz describes the lobbyists of for-profit vendors roaming the halls of the Capitol, pushing his colleagues to take positions at odds with the interests of their constituents.
"When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore?" said Schultz to the Cap Times' Jack Craver. "You just sit there and take votes, and you're kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money."
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.
[Editor's note: This op-ed was updated to credit a Dale Schultz quotation to an interview with Jack Craver in the Capital Times.]