Joint Finance Committee Power Grab of Milwaukee Public Schools

Story Date: 
May 20, 2015

By Heather DuBois Bourenane

I don't know if you were following what happened at the Wisconsin Capitol last night, but here is a summary:

The Joint Finance Committee voted along party lines to put forward an education budget that will harm our kids into perpetuity. There IS increased funding (as opposed to the $150/pupil cuts the Governor wanted), but the increase is illusory; expansion of vouchers and changes to the funding formula mean that it's difficult to tell how much of the "increase" will actually go to public schools. Waiting for the fiscal analysis of that. In the meantime, here's how Wisconsin schools were sold out from under you while you were sleeping:

The budget includes the worst of what thousands of parents, school board members, administrators, advocacy groups, and grassroots local citizens spoke out against in droves at the hearings and in writing over the past months. In the guise of giving an increase to the public school budget, it creates a new, complicated, confusing & unwanted way of "accounting" for private voucher school students that allows voucher money to be laundered through the public school budget. Districts that do not have voucher schools will lose even more money than they already do, and the voucher money will continue to come "off the top" as the program is expanded statewide. All over the state, communities will be forced to go to referendum and raise taxes to fund local schools. Many of these referenda will fail. The JFC voted against its constitutional obligation to fund public education at a level that allows for an adequate education for all students. We are a state of haves and have-nots, and the "haves" got a shiny new gift last night.

It also includes two unconscionable and highly controversial measures:
1) Inclusion of the Special Needs Vouchers that every single disability rights advocacy group in Wisconsin opposes and that are the heart of an ALEC/AFC campaign to get more public money into private schools by taking advantage of our most vulnerable kids. Private schools do not have to follow federal regulations and discriminate regularly against kids with special needs. They are also not required by the bill to use the vouchers to meet the needs of the children they're intended to serve. It is the ugliest of entitlements and it was slipped into the budget at the final hour, with no public hearing, because it is the weakest chink in their armor and they knew that public outrage would be widespread, as it was in previous years when the proposal failed on every attempt after much dissent.

2) Inclusion of a proposal to "phase in" takeover of the highest poverty, lowest performing Milwaukee Public Schools by revoking local control - a few schools at a time, more each year. This is a perverse, unvetted, ill-considered idea that has virtually NO local support, involved NO city leaders, and was given NO forum whatsoever for public input or community engagement. It will bankrupt MPS. It is the most paternalistic "we know best" of ideas and doomed to fail, as it provides no funds for the "wrap around services" it claims it will provide, and essentially hands public property over to privateers despite their having no track record of greater success in working with high-need schools, and despite the failures of similar takeover programs in Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans & Philadelphia. The kicker for the rest of the state, who will pay the tab for this, is that the language of the bill allows for replication of the program in other large cities - Racine and Madison will be next. Under the plan, public schools will be "managed" by an appointed czar and the local community/democratically elected school board will have no say in their governance as they're converted into a charter or even a private school, though a provision demands no tuition can be charged.  In the meantime, the bill would "help" just a few of the schools that most need help and the budget does nothing to meet the needs and call for fair funding and much-needed services and staffing for high-poverty schools. It is both a slap in the face of Milwaukee and a message to the rest of the state that local control and democracy have no place in the "business" of the school privatization movement.

Finally, the 51 items in the Omnibus Bill included all sorts of other things that will boggle your mind. Like allowing people with a bachelor's degree and "experience" to become licensed teachers. And a Jim Crow-style Civics Test that will be required for graduation (despite the fact that we already have a civics requirement in Wisconsin). And changing the current school "report card" system to a star rating system (not joking). And allowing charter and voucher schools to take different tests than the ones required for public schools so that all of these measures can be used to cook the books and feed the hoax that our beloved public schools underperform the schools that are stealing their funding. And much, more more. Read the whole thing here:http://wispolitics.com/1006/150519Motion457.pdf

I just hope everyone gets the message from that civics test: democracy means you vote. And elections sure do have consequences.

Be prepared to fight these things tooth and nail. They're not law until the governor signs the bill. There is hope -- when we speak as one, we cannot be ignored