By Barbara J. Miner
There are many ways to undermine democracy. Wisconsin, regrettably, is a prime example.
In 2011, Wisconsin passed one of the country’s strictest voter ID bills, with the most restrictive measures blocked in court.
But undermining the right to vote is not the only way to weaken our democracy. Another way? Remove public institutions from meaningful public oversight.
That, unfortunately, is part of Gov. Scott Walker’s education agenda.
Public schools are essential to our democratic vision, with the right to a public education enshrined in our state constitution. Across the state, voters elect school boards that oversee their local schools. The connection between the schools, the voters, and the community is clear and direct.
But Walker, using seductive rhetoric of “choice” and “options,” wants to increase the number of private voucher schools and privately run charters that operate independent of local school boards.
If you don’t believe that Walker’s agenda is a threat to your local schools, learn from Milwaukee.
Milwaukee has had vouchers since 1990. What started as a small experiment now includes almost 25,000 students. In size, the voucher program is almost as big as the Madison school district.
Vouchers drain both money and students from the public schools. As a result, the Milwaukee Public Schools faces the very real possibility of bankruptcy. Already, class sizes have skyrocketed and music and art teachers are an endangered species.
By design, voucher schools can circumvent public oversight. They are defined as “private” — even if every student receives a publicly funded voucher. Thus they operate under different rules.
Voucher schools do not have to respect constitutional rights and can expel students at will. They can ignore Wisconsin’s open meetings and record laws. Religious voucher schools can teach creationism, or discriminate against gay students. The list goes on.
Walker also advocates more “independent” charter schools.Milwaukee has had such charters since 1999. Our experience? “Independent” is a euphemism for “independent of public control and oversight.” A better description is “privately run.”
The city of Milwaukee, for instance, oversees nine such charters, and public oversight is painfully lacking. There is no information on the city’s website. There is no listing of schools, or meetings, or boards of directors, of even information on who is in charge.
The city of Milwaukee has been wooing national charter franchises. An educational version of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, these franchises develop cookie-cutter, low-cost models. As part of the deal, “management” fees are sent out of Wisconsin to the franchise’s national headquarters.
Privately run charters are a blueprint for corporate takeover of education.
Legislation to expand privately run charters failed last year. But it provides a look at Walker’s thinking. Under the plan, “independent” charters could have been approved by a statewide board, with six of the nine members appointed by the governor. There was no requirement for local oversight.
Wisconsin has more than 200 charter schools overseen by local school boards — only six states have more charters. There is no need for an appointed state board. Unless, of course, you want to privatize our public schools.
The call for more vouchers and privately run charters is an abandonment of public education and of democratic control of a vital institution.
If you care about your public schools, speak up. Now, before it’s too late.
Note: This opinion originally appeared in the Feb. 5 Cap Times in Madison.
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My new book, Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City (New Press, January 2013) is now on sale. To find your local independent bookstore, go to the Indiebound website, enter your zip code and you will be shown the 5 closest Indie bookstores. The Teaching for Change Bookstore (at Busboys and Poets) in Washington, D.C. also sells an e-edition. Amazon sells both a print or kindle edition.