This guest blog, on the growing destruction to public education in Wisconsin from the creation of a school voucher program a quarter of a century ago, was written by retired educator / activist Sheila Plotkin. Sheila has also been dubbed an “Independent Guerilla Journalist,” by Matt Rothschild.
Phase 1: 26 years ago, education by exclusion was wrapped in the camouflage of “parental choice”. Charter schools were touted as citadels of best practice, hotbeds of innovation, and a much-needed alternative to “failing” public schools. The courts determined that as long as taxpayer money (vouchers) went to the child and not the school, such public support for religious and other private education did not violate the constitution. The bulging public pocket was now open for picking.
But, the privatizers had a problem: public schools were not failing fast enough, and in some cases, despite the ravages of institutional racism, poverty, joblessness, crime, and social and family upheavals, they were actually successful. Most parents continued to choose their public schools. What to do?
Phase 2: Divide and conquer. Make teachers and their representatives the enemy of “parental choice”. Cap salary growth at artificial levels. When teachers object to be being singled out in this fashion, label them as greedy suckers at the public teat. Turn parents against their children’s teachers and other public employees.
How’d that work out for the privatizers? Well, they could see some progress, but it was agonizingly slow. Teachers continued to do their jobs, and public schools continued to succeed. Something more was required.
Phase 3: Politically engineer faster failure. Cut public education budgets by a couple of billion dollars. Expand education by exclusion across the state, and funnel those billions into private hands. As locally elected school boards struggle to provide the same or better services with decreasing funds, craft legislation to label and punish them as “failures”. Create separate standards for education by exclusion, and continue the drumbeat of “public school failure”.
Ignore the voices of protest. Ignore the research that shows education by exclusion is no better and often worse than public education. Ignore those privatizers who take taxpayer money and run, leaving betrayed parents and children in their wake. Sell superintendents and school board leaders the concept of “partnership” and joint decision-making on behalf of the children they serve. Make special education students eligible for education by exclusion so you can say you’re not discriminating against them. Hold public hearings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Ignore what you hear.
So far, so good.
Phase 4: Eviscerate local control. Create a plan to take over public schools and hand them over to privatizers in bulk. Start in Milwaukee where it all began. Under the guise of “partnership”, tap two white, wealthy, suburban legislators to draft legislation empowering the county executive to appoint an education by exclusion czar whose power supercedes that of the elected school board. Hold public hearings to demonstrate your willingness to listen. Ignore what you hear.
But, trouble is brewing. The hearings are raucous with uncomfortable questions neither the czar nor the county executive want to answer. Parents, students, and teachers are marching in the streets. Local leaders are joining them in protest. The czar suddenly resigns.
This is not good.
Phase 5: Remove the camouflage, and roll out the big guns. Two more wealthy white legislators step to the front lines. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald threatens to tighten the noose around the necks of Milwaukee’s children if their grown ups won’t lie down and shut up. Senator Ron Johnson introduces legislation that will prohibit the Justice Department from protecting special needs children who are thrown out of education by exclusion because they “don’t fit in”.
26 years of concerted effort, multi-millions in lobbying expenses, and skillful masking of the real intent of “parental choice” has come down to this: the GOP has the legislature, the statehouse, the Supreme Court and the public square. They have all the power necessary, and they can take what they want. They have promised Wisconsin’s treasure to their education by exclusion donors. It is time to keep that promise.
Phase 6: First Milwaukee, then Madison, Racine, Kenosha, and more. The public school dominoes will fall, taken down by those who swore to serve but chose to dominate instead. Education by exclusion at public expense for private profit will become Wisconsin’s new normal. The last and most fertile common ground on which the American Dream was built and from which it drew its nutrients, will lie fallow, polluted by greed, a brownfield to remind us of the community we once were.
There can no longer be any doubt that 26 years ago the goal of the skillfully disguised “parental choice” program was the complete destruction of public education. That goal is within reach.
Will the teachers and parents and children of Milwaukee Public Schools continue to stand alone against the power of the state? Will the rest of us wait silently until our schools are stolen? The battle is joined. The front lines are defined. Which side are you on?