If you are a Madison public schools parent like I am, you may have received a robocall recently offering "free tuition to send your child to a private or religious school."
"We at School Choice Wisconsin are proud to pay for this call, because we want the very best for you and your child," a woman's voice told me before I hung up the phone.
If the call piqued your interest, you may even have visited the website this friendly voice mentioned: chooseyourschoolwi.org.
You would have to dig a little further, though, to discover that the proud well-wishers who registered the School Choice Wisconsin website address are also known as the American Education Reform Council -- a group funded by the right-wing, Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation ($300,000 grants in 1998 and 2000) and founded by John Walton, of WalMart, who gave $1 million between 1999 and 2000.
The American Education Reform Council's political arm has been heavily involved in pushing voucher legislation in Colorado and Michigan; "paycheck protection" (to limit unions' ability to spend money in elections) in California; and a failed Washington, D.C., voucher initiative designed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
So why are they calling Madison parents now?
The calls happen to coincide with the application process for the statewide voucher program created in the last budget, also known as the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. The application period runs through April 21. Even if school vouchers are not available in your district, if enough people respond to these robocalls, voucher advocates can use the responses to demonstrate demand.
Ginning up demand for vouchers helps the people who want to expand the program to every district in Wisconsin -- which is why the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity is holding pro-voucher events around the state during application season.
But what's wrong with offering "the very best for you and your child"?
Well, for one thing, we know from two decades of experience with school vouchers in Milwaukee that voucher schools are not actually "the very best."
Fly-by-night operators are eager to take the tax dollars that follow your child to public school. In return, they have created schools all over Milwaukee where students perform poorly (PDF) on standardized tests, compared with their public school peers. Many of those children return to the Milwaukee public schools anyway -- after the voucher schools have siphoned money out of local neighborhoods and into the hands of private business operators.
Get ready for a lot more hucksterism in the brave new world of school "choice."
A couple of days ago I got a postcard in the mail from "eAchieve Academy," "Wisconsin's Leading Online Middle and High School."
In case you are one of those parents who feel that her middle or high schooler does not spend enough of her day online, you are urgedto register for an open house to be held on April 26 at the Best Western Plus East Towne Suites.
"Open enrollment closes at 4 pm on April 30, 2014," the postcard warns.
The photos of smiling teens in school-like settings are charming. But the Department of Public Instruction paints a less flattering picture of Wisconsin's virtual schools.
According to the state's school report cards for the 2012-2013 academic year, half of the children in virtual schools were attending one that was not meeting performance expectations.
The main virtual schools last year werethe McFarland School District's Wisconsin Virtual Academy, with 1,964 students; Waukesha's eAchieve Academy, with 901 students; Appleton's Wisconsin Connections Academy, with 734 students; and Northern Ozaukee's Wisconsin Virtual Learning, with 725 students.
But don't be confused by those locations. The beauty of virtual schools is that, unlike your neighborhood school building with its bricks and mortar, its playing fields and cafeteria and gym, they allow you to attend anywhere from the comfort of you home computer screen. And for virtual school operators, that's where the big money comes in. They get the same public money that follows each student to a real, live school with real, live teachers and janitors and coaches and counselors -- but without having to pay any of that expensive overhead.
What a deal!
So as you are sorting the mail and checking your messages and you hear about all these great choices you can make -- free tuition! flexible, individualized learning! laptop provided! -- keep in mind that you are paying for these businesses with the money that used to sustain our public schools. They are still performing better than all of these new, alternative options.
And if we allow the big school-choice interests to suck our schools dry, soon we won't have any good choices at all.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.