Dear Scott Walker,
This morning, I sent my kids back to school, now in the second (and more damaging) year of having to deal with the cuts that have weeded out some of their finest teachers (PDF) and laid bare budgets that already had no wiggle room. The cuts have forced many schools to drop essential programming and increased class size (PDF). At the beginning of a new school year, I am disturbed by your response to recent announcements.
On the heels of renewed controversy over implementation of "merit pay" systems that would ostensibly "reward" teachers whose students outperform others on standardized tests, Wisconsin Superintendent Tony Evers announced (PDF) that $16.1 million in federal grants will be poured into the charter programs that serve a tiny fraction of our students (only 84 of our 2,238 schools (PDF) are charters; they serve under 40,000 of the 870,000-plus kids in public schools).
This inequity is a blow to schools already bent under the weight of infrastructure-crushing cuts resulting from the 2011-13 budget, in which you denied the Department of Public Instruction's request to protect then-current funding levels for about 11,500 low-income Wisconsin kids. Instead, you added cuts to SAGE and HeadStart programming, even as you increased funding to charter schools by $22,547,000 for 2012-13 (a per-pupil payment of $6,442) and made dramatic increases in public funding to "voucher" programs that pay for attendance at private schools.
This disproportionate investment in the few at the expense of the many is jaw-dropping, especially at a time when "the many" are expected to pull their belts even tighter as they prepare to deal with the second year of your unprecedented cuts to public education.
As a parent who strongly believes in the need to invest equally in all of our students, I am terrified by the dangerous pattern you have very clearly established here, and have publicly promised to see through to the end. Your stated emphasis on "school choice" is a very thin veil for a plan that disinvests in our most vulnerable kids and overinvests in a privileged few.
I was equally disturbed to read your praise for a new "Teacher Equivalency Certification" that was announced by Dr. Evers (PDF) a couple of weeks ago: a process that would allow someone without a degree in teaching to get a public school teaching license if he or she has a bachelor's degree; has been a private school teacher; has similar out-of-state certification; or has "at least three years of teaching" at the post-secondary, preschool or industry level.
While both DPI and WEAC have endorsed the new certification process (which had been in the planning stages for some time before you were even governor), I am very concerned about how easily this new process might be co-opted into your larger plan for privatizing our schools and lowering both academic standards and teacher compensation.
The red flag went up when I read your praise for this move: "We must also help districts find qualified men and women with workplace experience who are interested in sharing their knowledge with the next generation, especially in high need areas like science and math."
I find this position insulting to educators, who have been carefully trained in a whole range of skill areas. Being an industry expert or having experience with a "subject" does not prepare or qualify one to teach that subject. How is a chemist prepared to deal with special needs students? How does a computer programmer possess the skills needed to deal legally and effectively with chronic acting-out in the classroom? How has an accountant's experiences in a cubicle prepared her for the demands of ensuring common core standards are met while reaching out to students of widely differing needs and abilities?
Imagine if the roles were reversed and the teacher demanded the private sector job -- at the same rate of pay. It just defies reason, and it's a slap in the face to dedicated educators.
While I'm sure the private sector can produce some good teachers (and a degree in education doesn't automatically translate into classroom success, either), the underlying assumption here is simply more of the same anti-educator rhetoric we've heard since you took office: anyone can teach, "real" teachers are just lazy and unqualified, teachers don't deserve what they earn, and on and on.
It also makes me wonder what this will mean in terms of compensation. How much will these "equivalent teachers" earn? Is this a ruse to lower the wages for educators? Or a plan to turn industries into "temp services" that will farm out "teachers" (and take a cut of their wages) to public schools? My mind races to imagine how the education-privatizers might capitalize on a move like this, especially when your own "Job Czar" is trying to make it more expensive for people who might really want to invest in a degree in education.
The path to a career in teaching begins with respecting that teaching is a profession -- not a "job" that anyone can just step into. I am skeptical of the token "assessment" requirements for anyone who has "not completed a Wisconsin recognized and approved educator preparation program." What message does this send about the value of those programs?
As a parent who volunteers in the schools and someone who works professionally with educators every day, I know that there is no testable "equivalent" of a degree in education. There is no "equivalent" to taking the time to learn about the rigors of standardized testing, the complexities of assessment, the pedagogies that work for the range of learners in our classrooms. And, ultimately, I don't want my kids taught by the "equivalent" of teachers. I want them taught by people who dedicated their lives to the profession, and who give that profession the respect it requires by receiving the proper training.
Why does the minimum standard for what we expect from our schools keep getting lowered? When will it stop? Is there a bottom to how low you will go, or do we just have to wait until all the schools fail? The race to the bottom is an ugly thing.
What's next? You want parents to sit back and let our schools fail so that your friends at the American Federation for Children and other privateers (who have been so aggressively trying to buy our elections) can jump in and "save" them, creating for-profit ventures out of once-excellent schools. And then what? What do we do with all of these underserved students? Let them "pull themselves up by their bootstraps"?
You have promised to work closely with Dr. Evers, and could start by taking seriously his Fair Funding for Our Future plan, which restores funding to a level that ensures our kids can get the education they need to thrive in the workplace and move Wisconsin forward. This program -- as education experts like Thomas Mertz have made clear -- would be most effective in conjunction with something that will ensure funds to our poorest schools, like the "A Penny for Kids" idea. This is a proposal that raises the sales tax by one cent, raising $850 million a year for schools and reducing the need to increase property taxes.
I have been following the blow-by-blow cuts to education ever since you took office. I have also been listening carefully to what people on both sides are saying about what does and doesn't work. The facts could not be more clear: Your plan is a catastrophic attack on public education that has very little to do with "unions" or "workers' rights" and everything to do with an ultimate goal of reducing accountability and opening the door to privatization.
I oppose that, and not on a partisan basis (don't even get me started on what I oppose in the Obama plan). I oppose it because it's bad for our kids. It's bad for all of us.
Please. Reinvest in our schools before it's too late.
Heather DuBois Bourenane is a Sun Prairie resident. She publishes Monologues of Dissent, and the original version of this letter was published here. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.