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Scott Walker's Budget Undermines Public Education, with Bull's-eye on Milwaukee

For Wisconsin's schools, Scott Walker's new budget is a blueprint for abandoning public education. In Milwaukee, in addition to insufficient funding, the budget includes a "takeover" plan that increases privatization and decreases democratic control of the city's public schools.

Scott Walker's budget continues campaign against public education in Wisconsin.,

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is expected to do two things in the next few days: Formally announce his candidacy for President and sign Wisconsin's biennial budget.

The first may receive national attention, but it is the second that will disastrously affect Wisconsin - and that should receive national play.

Buried within the budget are 135 non-budget policy items - a toxic cocktail of attacks on public education, democracy, environmental protections and labor rights.

For Wisconsin's schools, the budget is a blueprint for abandoning public education. In Milwaukee, in addition to insufficient funding, the budget includes a "takeover" plan that increases privatization and decreases democratic control of the city's public schools.

The budget was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate a few minutes before midnight Tuesday, with all Democrats and one Republican voting "no". The Assembly is expected to pass the budget Wednesday and send it to Walker by the end of the week.

The attack on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is in the context of a frontal assault on public education across the state. The budget cuts $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, holds overall K-12 funding flat in the first year with modest increases in the second (which, given inflation, means cuts). And while programs promoting privately-run charters are expanded, the budget eliminates Chapter 220 - a metropolitan-wide program designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color.

The budget is also expanding the statewide voucher program, under which tax dollars are funneled  into private, overwhelmingly religious schools. (The program is modeled after Milwaukee's private school voucher program which began in 1990 and which now includes 112 schools and 25,000 students.)

The "takeover" plan for Milwaukee, where nearly two-thirds of the state's African-American population live, was proposed by two white suburban legislators, Sen. Alberta Darling (R) and Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R). Because the plan was inserted into the budget rather than proposed in a separate bill, there was never a public hearing.

The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a "commissioner" who will have parallel power with the elected school board overseeing MPS. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city's schools the first two years, and up five every year thereafter.

The take-over plan is replete with problems that are indicative of Governor Walker's approach to public policy and the public sector. These problems include:

1) Expands failed policies. The notion of  improving public schools by turning them over to private charter or voucher operators has been tried before - and failed.
For 25 years, voucher schools in Milwaukee have been a conservative's dream - no unions, no school board, no state-mandated curriculum or regulations - and what has been the result? Vouchers schools on the whole perform worse than the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the last quarter century, vouchers schools have drained over a billion dollars of taxpayers' money away from Milwaukee students who depend on the public schools. This  under-resourcing of public schools means larger class sizes, less individual attention and greatly reduced access to art, music libraries and physical education compared with suburban counter parts.

2) Undermines democracy. Elected school boards and lack of choices are not the problem with our schools. Milwaukee arguably has more publicly funded school options than any urban system in the country, from citywide and neighborhood-based public schools, to MPS charter schools, to city-controlled charter schools, to charters run by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to private voucher schools, to open enrollment that includes suburban districts. The rhetoric around governance is a smokescreen to get rid of democratically elected school boards and publicly controlled schools. Yes, democracy can be messy, but the alternative is worse. If we decide to abandon every democratic institution that is not up to our hopes and dreams, why not get rid of the U.S. Congress? Or the Wisconsin Legislature?

3) Exacerbates inequality. Data show that privately run charter and voucher schools serve significantly fewer students with special needs, English language learners and more difficult to educate students. Students are counseled out and pushed back into public schools. The "takeover" plan will only increase this problem.

4) Continues Milwaukee's plantation mentality. Milwaukee is the most segregated metropolitan region in the nation. It should give pause when two white suburban legislators propose having a white county executive appoint a "commissioner" who can  pluck schools away from the democratically elected school board of an overwhelmingly nonwhite district.

No one denies that the Milwaukee Public Schools need to do a better job. Yet the state budget expands a disturbing history of abandonment, which will only makes matter worse.  

Despite its problems, the Milwaukee Public Schools is the only institution in the city with the capacity, commitment and legal obligation to serve all our students. Our schools are the foundation of our democracy and of our future.

When we abandon our public schools, we not only abandon democracy, we abandon our children's future.

Gov. Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and can literally change the budget line by line. How he uses that veto pen will foretell his national plans as he enters the Republican presidential primary.

In Wisconsin, where we have four years of experience with Walker, we expect him to continue his policies of abandoning public institutions and undermining the middle class. Hopefully, national observers will see through Walker's rhetoric and analyze the realities of his state budget.

[Bob Peterson is a founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association.]