Scott Walker has begun taking steps to implement the Koch Brothers’ plans to privatize every aspect of American society with a proposal that would massively expand the school voucher program in Wisconsin, with the ultimate end of ending public schooling once and for all.
Voucher programs use public money to subsidize private and charter school tuition. Voucher funds in Wisconsin are currently capped at 1% of students, but under the new budget plan proposed by Walker and his Republican cronies, the cap would be removed. While the budget does restore the $127mn cuts that Walker wanted, the “voucher programs” are code for privatizing public schools, and the idea is very unpopular among Wisconsonites. It would also open the voucher program to special needs children, a move opposed by disability groups across the nation, because it would strip away desperately needed funding from public schools and give them to schools that do not need to adhere to federal guidelines. A 2009 study at Stanford University across sixteen states found that just 17% of charter schools provide a better education than public schools.
Suspicion begins with the shady way the bill was proposed and debated- Democrats were given just one hour to read a 29 page document. Heather Dubois Bourenane, Director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network complained that “It’s just an affront to democracy”. The Democratic proposal, on the other hand, would provide some $450 million for public schools over the next two years. “You cannot fully fund public schools and continue to expand private school vouchers,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “It cannot happen.”
Apart from starving one of America’s most important public institutions, there are many issues with private schools. Many private schools offer faith-based education, and voucher programs would violate state-church separation by using taxpayer funds to subsidize them. It’s an inherently free-market approach that is inappropriate for education. It’s a movement gaining traction across that nation. As Salon.com reports, “its most important backers are rightwing organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and other groups supported by billionaire rightwing ideologues like the Koch brothers. They want to dismantle public education altogether and run schools as businesses, judged as “successes” or “failures” based on abstract data taken from high-stakes standardized test scores.”
The story of LifeSkills Academy in Milwaukee is a troubling omen for the voucher program. Taron and Rodney Monroe operated a private religious school that served 400 low-income children from the area, and recieved $2.3 million in public money since 2008. Their enrollment dwindled as only one student managed to score proficiently in math and reading in the 2012-2013. After the school closed abruptly last December, the Monroes vanished for a few months before reappearing in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a $300,000 house and are attempting to open another voucher school in the area. Voucher funds unspent cannot be recouped by the taxpayers, and oversight is almost nonexistent.
Teachers at private schools don’t need to have state teaching certifications. The only students who are eligible for the voucher program are students whose families earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which brings us to the most alarming part of this story.
The Koch Brothers are notorious for not only their free-market fascist ideology but for a peculiar fetish for education reform- as a platform to spread their appalling racism. Their involvement in the Wake County school board elections in an effort to re-segregate the schools there is still not well known. That same racist sentiment is at play here in Wisconsin. Part of the bill includes provisions for poor-performing schools- in other words, those catering to low-income families, to be taken over by the state and turned into charter schools, leaving low-income children without any hope of recieving any quality education as the public schools are starved of funds. And of course, as is inherent in every part of the Koch scheme for America, private schools can make a profit by siphoning off the government- and Walker is trying to abolish the oversight agency that keeps an eye on for-profit schools and protects the students from being cheated.
It is an absolute travesty being disguised as under the benign cover of offering students more “choices”. Unfortunately, the way that translates in America is that the kids who already had choices now have more choices. Those who are constrained by no opportunities and low income are condemned to stay there, creating the permanent underclass of exploitable labor that hypercapitalist America feeds off of. Every child has a right to a quality education and opportunities to make something of themselves, and this budget is a sign of dark days for our public school system and the futures of American children.
Colin Taylor is the editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.