The 2016 presidential race is already under way, and our own Scott Walker is duking it out with Jeb Bush and Chris Christie for the honor of being the next "education president."
In the upside-down world of Republican politics, Koch brothers-financed Republican governors like Walker and Christie, who built their careers bashing teachers and helping private interests siphon money out of public schools, are running as heroes of education "reform."
Walker kicked off his 2016 presidential run with a State of the State speech that was short on policy and long on the Green Bay Packers and Freedom, as The Progressive magazine's Capitol reporter Rebecca Kemble pointed out.
Walker, Kemble reported, said the word "freedom" seven times in the last eight sentences of his speech, and concluded by talking about terrorism in France. As for governing our state, he had only two policy prescriptions: merging a bunch of government agencies, and joining a corporate-sponsored lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency to block carbon emissions rules.
But the real priority for Walker and the Republican-dominated Legislature showed up in the very first bill of the new session. Assembly Bill 1 is an effort to take over public schools. The proposed legislation punishes "failing" schools (read, schools that serve low-income kids) by turning them over to private entities that can make a profit by siphoning off public funds.
"School choice" lobbyists have grown so powerful in our state they have developed a lock on Republican politicians — pushing them to back measures like the expansion of school vouchers that are unpopular with constituents.
That explains why the Republicans' top legislative priority — diminishing local control of schools and expanding school privatization — is being conducted without public hearings and over the objections of local school district officials throughout the state.
In the dramatic hearing last week on Assembly Bill 1, legislators thanked two powerful former Republicans from the Legislature who are now school choice lobbyists, Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin and Scott Jensen of the American Federation for Children, for their help drafting the school takeover bill. They also drew loud boos from the audience when they announced they would not hold any public hearings on the final version of the bill.
Drienne Driver, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, who used to run several Renaissance Schools in Philadelphia, gave particularly devastating testimony. As Rebecca Kemble reported, Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) asked Driver if she would recommend the Renaissance model for Wisconsin, since it was, in fact, the template for Assembly Bill 1. "The optics are good — school uniforms and fixed-up buildings," Driver said. "But the finances and the academic results are terrible."
The Middleton-Cross Plains Area Board of Education underscored that message in a letter to the Legislature, pointing out serious problems with the bill and asking for input from the teachers, administrators and communities who will be affected.
"AB 1 appears to rely on sanctions, punishment and conversion of low-performing schools to privately run charter schools," the Middleton school board wrote. "Penalties without tools for improvement set up public schools for failure."
Another way the bill stacks the deck is by allowing private schools to select from a range of assessments so there is no apples-to-apples comparison of charter and voucher schools against regular public schools.
That's particularly important, since neither vouchers nor charters in Wisconsin have managed to get better results on statewide tests than public schools.
But the worst thing about the bill is that it creates an incentive not to serve the kids who need it the most.
"Insurance companies remain profitable by excluding those the insurance company determines to be at high risk to file a claim," the Middleton school board wrote in its letter to lawmakers. "As schools begin to compete for tuition dollars, and as they are judged on student exam performance, it will not be long before private schools overtly or covertly exclude students those schools determine to be at high risk of academic failure."
Activists are now calling for statewide hearings on the Senate version of the schools bill. Those hearings would be very, very interesting — and potentially very stressful for the legislators.
Republican state senators are between a rock and a hard place: The powerful school choice lobby increasingly calls the shots in the Capitol, but their constituents love their local schools and don't want to see them drained of resources to line the pockets of dodgy profit-making ventures.
It's time to hear from the public.
Ruth Conniff is the editor of The Progressive.