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Governor Scott Walker's Wisconsin budget proposal is channeling the ghost of the late Milton Friedman, high priest of free-market fundamentalism, when it comes to educating the students of Wisconsin.  Friedman laid out the blueprint in a 1995 policy brief that can now be found on the web site of the Cato Institute.

Public Schools: Make Them Private

Vouchers are the tool -- and the point of the vouchers is to destroy public education as we know it, to the benefit of for-profit education.

Here's the executive summary of the brief (emphasis mine):

Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system--i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools. The most feasible way to bring about such a transfer from government to private enterprise is to enact in each state a voucher system that enables parents to choose freely the schools their children attend. The voucher must be universal, available to all parents, and large enough to cover the costs of a high-quality education. No conditions should be attached to vouchers that interfere with the freedom of private enterprises to experiment, to explore, and to innovate.
A private, for-profit education industry, built on taxpayer dollars and enabled by a voucher system.

The Wisconsin connection, beyond the jump...

In Wisconsin, we've been voucher guinea pigs for a long time.  All the way back in 1990, governor Tommy Thompson (R, ALEC-booster) instituted a pilot voucher program in Milwaukee, ostensibly to provide high-quality educational alternatives to low-income students in the worst of Milwaukee's poverty-racked public schools.  At first, the program boasted strict income caps for participating families, caps on the percentage of voucher students any given school could enroll, caps on the number of vouchers overall, no participation by religious schools, considerable testing requirements.

But according to the Friedman approach, the pilot was indeed only a beginning:

Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.
Once the camel's nose was under the tent, Wisconsin started to jettison those pesky conditions, sacrificed on Friedman's altar of "no conditions should be attached."  As a result, there are now nearly 25,000 voucher students in Milwaukee in schools both secular and religious, many in schools where every last student is voucher-funded.  Somewhere along the line, students already in private schools who met the income cap were allowed to begin claiming voucher money too.  We even had years without data-gathering, with no way to compare academic performance between voucher and non-voucher students, until just recently.

When the comparisons are made, on those recent years of data, it turns out that the Milwaukee voucher schools are far from the vast improvement that they were sold as being.  In fact, on average they do worse than the now-decimated Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even though they don't have to accept students with disabilities, even though they find ways to rid themselves of students with academic struggles and behavior issues, the voucher schools still underperform the public schools on average.  And, as AnnieJo revealed last year, when you take students with disabilities out of the averages, the voucher schools turn up to be even worse.

In defiance of the performance data, the Walker administration inflicted vouchers on the city of Racine, Wisconsin last year.  Of the 228 vouchers that were granted, over half of them went to students already attending private schools.  As an article in Madison's Capital Times put it, "That meant nearly half the parents began receiving money from the public school system to cover tuition they previously had paid on their own."  The combination of the draining of school district funds, and the reduction of state aid due to fewer students remaining in the district, caused the city of Racine to have to raise its property taxes by 3.44%, when otherwise the hike would only have been .05%.

Last week, Governor Walker released his 2013-2015 budget proposal.  It includes voucher expansion to NINE urban areas:  Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Kenosha, Madison, Sheboygan, Superior, Waukesha, and West Allis-West Milwaukee.  On top of this radical expansion of a failed program, the budget also creates a statewide voucher program for students with disabilities, a measure that failed to pass in last year's legislature.

How could they possibly justify this, without an honest quoting of Friedman?

I believe that the only way to make a major improvement in our educational system is through privatization to the point at which a substantial fraction of all educational services is rendered to individuals by private enterprises. Nothing else will destroy or even greatly weaken the power of the current educational establishment...
Alas, far from the honesty that we'd love to be able to expect, the underlying philosophy is a dark secret.  Instead, they "justified" it by creating a new way to define "failing schools," even though Wisconsin's schools rank high among US states on metrics like graduation rates and 8th grade reading scores.  This plot took the form of a new report-card system for schools, a complex and convoluted system that graded individual schools in ways they'd never been graded before.  The first round of report card grades for schools came out this fall.  And then, without giving schools any recourse or opportunity to improve, came the budget voucher attack: Any school district with at least 4000 students and at least two schools with grades of "D" or "F" will be voucherized like Milwaukee and Racine, including having to pay for students already in private schools, with family incomes of up to 300% of poverty.

"Nothing else will destroy or even greatly weaken..."

The special needs voucher proposal, on the other hand, didn't even bother with a "failing schools" justification.  The special-needs wing of the voucher attack will simply open up the floodgates statewide for students with disabilities to attend a private school on the public dime... if they can find a school that will take them.  As with the Milwaukee/Racine vouchers, students already in private schools can begin drawing down the public funding.  And for this program, there's NO income cap -- even millionaires can get subsidized to send their students with disabilities to private school.

The special needs vouchers, ALEC to the core, are pernicious in other ways.  For one thing, students who take the vouchers would lose all their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This makes the vouchers a risky proposition, subject to all sorts of shady, unenforceable promises on the part of the voucher schools.  Meanwhile, public schools are required to accept and educate all students, regardless of disability.  Not so the private voucher schools, who can set admissions standards to exclude applicants on the basis of behavior and academic achievement.  The voucher schools will skim the students with the mildest of challenges, leaving the public schools to struggle with educating the students with disabilities that impact them more severely -- and to do so with decreased funding, as the districts' funding (our tax dollars!) flows away into the private schools along with the "easier" students.

Is there any hope at all for Wisconsin's proud tradition of public education?

Well, sometimes hope springs in unexpected places.

In the Senate, skeptical Republican senators who blocked some of Walker's voucher proposals two years ago also raised concerns of their own about these latest expansion plans.

"This is phase one of a wide-open school voucher program for the state," Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) said. "The governor didn't respect the thoughts of about eight or 10 Republican senators who didn't want it in the budget."

And then there was also this from Sen. Ellis:
State senator Michael Ellis "said he was 'totally opposed' to the proposal on special needs students because private schools could agree to take certain special needs students while leaving the costliest and most difficult students to educate in public schools."
Education groups statewide are ramping up their opposition and hoping that the Republican pushback might bear fruit.  One of the first groups out of the gate was the grassroots statewide parent-network called Stop Special Needs Vouchers, who held a well-attended press event at the Capitol on February 18.  Parent after parent of students with disabilities from across the state took the microphone and spoke their passionate opposition to the special needs vouchers, while the cameras played over the faces and handmade signs of their children.  After the event, they carried a letter to Governor Walker's office, signed by parents from La Crosse to Neenah to Beloit to Milwaukee plus many attendees at the event, imploring the governor to remove this proposal from the budget and let it have a statewide debate and a separate public hearing, as such a major policy change should.

The press coverage generated headlines like these:
-- Group Prepares to Fight Special Needs Vouchers
-- Parents Rally Against Special Needs Vouchers
-- Proposed Special Needs Vouchers Program Draws Parents' Concerns

The lobbyists for the American Federation for Children, the billionaire-backed pro-voucher group that has been pouring obscene amounts of money into the campaign coffers of Wisconsin GOP legislators, had to scramble to even get a cursory mention at the end of the news stories.  I didn't see any pro-voucher quotes from parents, only from lobbyists.

It's hard to tell what lies ahead.  But the spark has not gone out in Wisconsin.  We're still here.  We're fighting for our future, for the children of this once-great state.  We are practicing the art of resistance -- and we have hope that Wisconsin's proud education system need not descend into a privatized, Friedman-esque dystopia.

Originally posted to Giles Goat Boy on Fri Mar 01, 2013 at 09:29 AM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, American Legislative Transparency Project, Your Government at Work, and Badger State Progressive.

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