The reactionary forces of the status quo, their backs to the wall, have unleashed a desperate counter-offensive to stymie the popular education reform movement.
DNA-quality evidence of that comes courtesy of an article printed (where else?) in Wednesday's Capital Times. Expertly written by liberal advocacy journalist Bill Lueders, its headline gives away the game: "Selling out public schools."
"Selling out" serves as a Trojan horse for the standard teachers union position that, as a priority, preserving the public school monopoly trumps actually educating children. It exalts the institution over the people it is supposed to serve. Save the bus, to hell with the passengers.
Lueders attempts to hobble the burgeoning school choice movement by attributing its success to political intrigue rather than the increasing failure of the unionized public school model. His lengthy piece employs the conspiracy mode of journalism: pour in a spattering of unfamiliar organizations and names, suggest some back room string-pulling, hint at vote buying, and stir with implications of nefarious intention. Voila: an expose that exposes, if anything, the author's own bias.
Bill Lueders, an accomplished tactician, stacks his quotes for maximum effect. High up in the story, in the third paragraph, standard-issue Dane County Democrat State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts indicts a supporter of school choice, a Republican from Spring Green, with this money quote:
"What's in this for Howard Marklein?" asks Pope-Roberts. "If it isn't for the campaign funds, why is he doing this?"
Sadly for his cause, even Bill Lueders is forced to point out that the amount of campaign donations Marklein received from pro-school reform advocates -- a little over $3,200 -- is "not an overwhelming amount of money." The unfortunate legislator, now placed on the defensive by a partisan Democrat's reckless and unsupported charge of vote selling, "insists he has other reasons for supporting school choice."
"Insists?" Did you catch the author's whiff of incredulity?
Marklein does have reasons but they are not assayed until the 36th paragraph. Yes, it's a long article.
And what are those reasons? Like a lot of Republicans, and a growing number of Democrats, the state rep believes in freedom of choice and the marketplace power of competition to offer alternatives to the state-sponsored monopoly of failing schools.
For that is the great hole in the middle of Lueders' doughnut: the godliness of the K-12 public school monopoly is assumed, never examined. Alternatives are the works of Wall Street fiends who want to keep our children fat, dependent and stupid.
The union intends to monopolize its turf
It helps to know that the public school system in most states is completely and thoroughly unionized. Private schools -- accessible to impoverished families through vouchers -- and many charter schools, are not. You won't learn that from Lueders' "Selling out public schools."
(With vouchers, money the state would spend on the pupil anyway simply follows the student to the school of his/her choice. Lueders, to his credit, acknowledges that voucher schools actually educate its pupils at lower cost. Charter schools are public schools with different rules.)
Lueders cites the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's accounting that individuals and political action committees associated with school choice gave $125,220 in campaign contributions to Walker and another $181,627 to current legislators and committees, most of them Republicans, in the 2009-10 election cycle.
But this pales in comparison to the campaign cash contributed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's umbrella teachers union. That is something else lost in the doughnut hole of the 3,323-word article (2.5 times the size of this screed). You won't find a single mention of WEAC, either by its acronym or its full name. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports:
Among labor unions, WEAC is among the largest direct contributors to candidates for statewide office and the legislature. It is also one of the biggest-spending outside electioneering groups in Wisconsin fall and spring elections, making independent expenditures of more than $4 million since 2008.
Just for fun, let's get Rep. Marklein to ask Rep. Pope-Roberts why she is such a shill for the teachers union. If it isn't for the campaign funds, why is she doing this?
In the last four election cycles, the liberal Democrat received almost $10,000 from teachers unions and public school administrators who oppose school choice. Is the gentle lady bought and paid for or do only liberals have scruples?
Indeed, the forces defending the status quo -- particularly the unions -- "are well organized and well financed." So writes the eight-year chancellor of the nation's largest K-12 school system, Joel Klein of New York City Schools, in the June 2011 edition of The Atlantic magazine.
Our unionized public schools are failing
Lueders' piece comes just as the school choice movement is gaining real traction. Last year saw the release of Davis Guggenheim's heart-breaking documentary, Waiting for Superman. The cause has been taken up by reformers like Joel Klein and Geoffrey Canada in New York, Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C., Howard Fuller and Polly Williams in Milwaukee -- for that matter, Barack Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan. Here in Madison, Urban League president Kaleem Caire proposes a college prep charter school targeted at minority youth. Unionized teachers who "teach to the contract" are not welcome at his Madison Prep.
Most of the aforenamed reformers are people of color. None of them rates a mention in Lueders' "Selling out."
What gives momentum to the school choice movement is the increasing dysfunction of public schools, scleroticized as they are by intransigent teachers unions. Klein writes:
Nearly three decades after "A Nation at Risk" ... the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible -- even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K-12 public education.
Public education in most places is an unaccountable, government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business because most families have no other choice unless they can afford private school tuition on top of school property taxes. This virtual monopoly creates little incentive to measure performance or reward merit. In fact, Jim Doyle and his Democrat-controlled legislature -- Sondy Pope-Roberts, included -- outlawed using test scores to discipline ineffective teachers.
(Well, WEAC should get something for its money. The teachers union spent $2.5 million to lobby the last Democratic legislature -- twice as much as the tobacco lobby and three times the effort of big business Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.)
The former NYC schools chancellor proposes that every student have at least one alternative -- "and preferably several" -- to her neighborhood school.
Competition for failing schools
Milwaukee's public schools, where Gov. Tommy Thompson began the nation's first school voucher program, are a failure by any measure. Ninety-four of the 100 largest school districts in the country have higher graduation rates than Milwaukee, where the graduation rate is 45%, according to the Manhattan Institute. That compares with 58% in Philadelphia, 63% in New Orleans and 50% in Chicago.
Former Elmbrook school board member State Sen. Kanavas attributes the decline of the Milwaukee schools to the fact that, "over time, MPS evolved into a system to provide jobs for adults instead of one that focused on educating students."
Nor are Madison's unionized public schools exempt. Madison was one of three districts, along with Milwaukee and Racine, "identified for improvement" this summer because it did not meet federal educational standards.
The same "progressive" opponents of education reform also celebrated Wisconsin's failure to win President Obama's Race to the Top grant money for educational innovation. "Race to the bathroom," Ed Garvey, a WEAC endorsee called it.
Most recently, WEAC refused overtures from Gov. Walker and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers to help draw up a statewide system to measure educational results that might replace the federal No Child Left Behind measurements.
What's in this for Bill Lueders?
Maybe that is why Rep. Marklein is supporting school choice: accountability and performance.
And maybe Bill Lueders wrote the article the way he did because of who underwrites his paycheck. Bill left Isthmus to work as the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project is supported by, among others, the Open Society Institute and partners with MapLight. The latter two -- for you conspiracy buffs -- are bankrolled by the hedge fund billionaire and liberal Democrat, George Soros. As noted at Newsbusters:
Liberal academic programs, left-wing investigative journalism and even supposedly neutral news organizations paid for by a man who spends tens of millions of dollars openly attacking the right...
Yes, liberals have their sugar daddies, too.