Almost all conversation about schools is both highly personal and intensely local, as anyone who pays attention to Madison school news can attest. People get pretty worked up about issues like whether their neighbors are moving the kids out of the neighborhood school and whether our largely white, liberal community is neglecting the needs of African American and Latino youth.
But even as all that impassioned debate rages, the big forces that are changing our schools are not local at all. Wisconsin is at the center of a national school-choice movement that seeks to unmake public education and exchange it for a system of private-school vouchers and unaccountable private charter schools.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign released a report in April showing that "wealthy campaign contributors and shadowy electioneering groups that back school voucher programs have spent nearly $10 million in 10 years in Wisconsin" - mostly to keep Gov. Scott Walker in office as he tries to dramatically expand school vouchers.
Walker's budget expands our first-in-the-nation private-school voucher program beyond Milwaukee and Racine to nine new districts, including Madison. A friend of mine whose kids go to a Catholic school got an email recently telling her that if Madison becomes a voucher district, Catholic-school families can look forward to a tuition rebate.
Perhaps Madison voters ought to be allowed to weigh in on whether they want their tax dollars to subsidize private-school tuition, including for families whose kids have never attended public school at all.
Moderate Republicans in the state Legislature think so, and have suggested that local communities ought to be allowed to hold a referendum before vouchers are shoved down their throats. The governor responded negatively to that suggestion, saying he thinks parents shouldn't be deprived of vouchers just because the voters in their district don't want to subsidize private-school fees.
When Ed Hughes of the Madison school board criticized Walker's voucher plan and its destructive potential for Madison, he got a quick brush-back from the American Federation for Children, led by former Republican Assembly speaker and super-lobbyist Scott Jensen. Other former Assembly speakers who have become school-choice lobbyists include Jeff Fitzgerald and John Gard, both now with School Choice Wisconsin.
That says something about how much political pull the school privatizers have in Wisconsin.
Then there's the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation. Bradley is "the most powerful organization in America that no one seems to know about," says Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now, whose group just published a detailed report (PDF) on Bradley.
A lot of people have heard of the billionaire Koch brothers and their support for right-wing causes around the nation. But few realize that Bradley is actually a bigger right-wing funder than the Kochs. And one of the group's biggest causes is school choice.
Headed by Gov. Walker's campaign co-chair Michael Grebe, Bradley has underwritten what One Wisconsin Now calls "a massive, pro-privatization propaganda campaign," including "a systematic campaign to turn public opinion against the public school system." Thus, we have all the rhetoric about "failing schools," including here in Madison. Grebe and Walker have hit on an issue that brings lots of money and national political attention to our state - even if it's unpopular in local communities.
In fact, Gov. Walker's current budget only makes sense if you read it as a platform for his presidential run. Wisconsin's 25,000 voucher students will get up to $1,400 per pupil in new funding, while the 870,000 students in public schools get a $0 per-pupil increase. And that's on top of the $1 billion budget cut Walker imposed on the public schools in his last budget.
Another big drain on school funding is Walker's proposed private charter-school authorizing board, which siphons state aid to a network of unaccountable "independent" charter schools.
School boards around the state have been passing resolutions calling for fair funding and opposing these privatization efforts. But voters are going to have to shout extra loud to be heard over the privatization lobby.
The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will likely take up the education part of the budget later this month. School boards and pro-public-school activists are pushing for legislators to take the voucher expansion out of the budget and put it to a straight up-or-down vote.
Does it make any sense that families who never used the public schools, and who are neither poor nor living in a neighborhood with a "failing school," can get taxpayer dollars to reduce their tuition? Even as our public schools are forced to slash programs and keep per-pupil spending flat?
How can anyone justify that? You can't, if you are talking to people affected by these policies on a local level. But if you're running on a national stage, and want to show a record of "bold" programs that pushed "reform" despite heavy opposition, it's a different story.