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Stability or Disruption for Wisconsin Schools? | Opinion

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by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner

Parent-teacher conferences just ended — a process akin to speed-dating, during which my husband and I met with our high school sophomore’s teachers in a flurry of quick, 10-minute Zoom sessions.

As frenetic as the process was, it was reassuring to talk to the grownups who are teaching our daughter and to hear what she’s learning and how things are going in class. After all the upheavals of the pandemic, not to mention adolescence and our shifting family dynamics with two of our three kids away at college now, there is something grounding about connecting with teachers who have seen our three kids through high school.

These are veteran teachers, confident in their knowledge and knowledgeable about our kid. The feeling of stability that goes along with that relationship stands out this week, as political  debate heats up about whether Wisconsin public schools are “failing,” whether they deserve more funding after more than a decade of disinvestment, and whether all Wisconsin parents ought to be able to take the money taxpayers spend to support public education and instead spend it on private school tuition for their kids.

At the center of the argument about school choice is a debate over whether stability or disruption is a better approach to meeting kids’ needs.

School choice advocates argue that traditional public schools need to be shaken up and forced to compete with private schools. On the other side, arguing for stability, Gov. Tony Evers proposes investing some of Wisconsin’s record-breaking budget surplus — which has now grown to a whopping $6.6 billion — to shore up Wisconsin’s existing public education system.

Last time Evers tried to increase funding for education, the state Legislature tore up his budget plan and replaced it with a zero-increase budget for schools. In the next budget, Republican legislative leaders have said they would consider increasing school funding only if Evers agrees to a universal school choice program that would allow all Wisconsin parents to use public money to send their children to private school.

School choice has been expanding for decades in Wisconsin. From the beginning, school choice advocates have argued that new schools outside the regular system, run by innovative, outside-the-box thinkers, would benefit not just students who chose to attend them but also the surrounding traditional public schools.

“Competitions breeds improved results,” a supporter of the proposed North Shore Classical Academy — a new Hillsdale charter school that plans to open in Mequon — declared at a community meeting on the school (his comments and others from that meeting have been edited into a video on the charter school’s website).

“It’s results-oriented: Schools don’t work, schools shut down,” declared Milwaukee County’s flamboyant former sheriff, David Clarke, during the same meeting in the American Legion Hall in Mequon. Dressed in his trademark cowboy hat and fatigues and deploying the same tough-guy tone he used in his “Blue Lives Matter” speech at the Republican convention in 2016, Clarke decried low-performing schools in Milwaukee, suggesting they, too, should be shut down if test scores don’t improve.

“They have a five-year contract,” UW System charter school authorizer Vanessa Moran explained. If Moran’s Office of Educational Opportunity green-lights the school, and “if at the end of those five years they haven’t met the mark, they don’t get to continue to operate,” she said.

The sink-or-swim approach is not great for kids

On the surface, this philosophy — that competition among schools will improve outcomes for students, and that “failing” schools should be shut down — sounds sensible to a lot of people.

In reality, though, there is plenty of evidence that the sink-or-swim approach to education does not improve outcomes for kids.

Take Milwaukee, site of the nation’s oldest school voucher program – an “experiment” that is now three decades old.

If competition bred better results, Milwaukee, school choice central in Wisconsin, would be a shining example of success.

Instead, test scores show that voucher students are no better at reading and math than non-voucher students in Milwaukee. “And proficiency rates in both streams of schools have been generally unchanged for years at depressingly low levels,” veteran education reporter and Marquette University Law School fellow Alan Borsuk wrote in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece last year. “Whatever is needed to push the button to start up booming academic achievement, vouchers aren’t it.”

Furthermore, a patchwork of deregulated private academies that open and close again on short notice is profoundly destabilizing for communities and for kids.

By 2014, Milwaukee’s voucher experiment had spawned a bevy of fly-by-night schools that taught creationism in middle-school science class, occupied decrepit office buildings, convenience stores and even gas stations and included shady operators who collected tuition from unsuspecting families and then shut down and fled the state in the middle of the night. The scandals prompted local officials to crack down.

But despite such serious problems and dubious results, school choice advocates lobbied and won the expansion of school vouchers first to Racine and then statewide. The lifting of income caps on what was originally meant to be a program for low-income kids, and steadily increasing enrollment, led some Republican former legislators to blow the whistle, pointing out that school choice in Wisconsin is rapidly moving us toward an education system breakdown. It’s simply not sustainable to support two school systems, one public and one private, out of a single, limited pot of education funds.

Listening to Republicans talk bitterly about Evers’ goal of shoring up public schools (and fixing the damn roads) with a small portion of the big, fat multibillion surplus lawmakers are sitting on, it’s hard not to think of Grover Norquist’s pledge to get government down to the size where he could “drown it in the bathtub.”

Underfunding schools, even when times are good, and draining them of resources by siphoning public money into private outfits, is part of a long-term plan by Republicans and libertarians to crush “big government.” That anti-government ideology has set Wisconsin on a path to a voucherized, privatized system of education in keeping with the libertarian, every-man-for-himself vision of society.

It’s worth pausing to consider what we’re in for.

Hillsdale academies and a for-profit charter chain come to Wisconsin

In addition to expanding school vouchers, Republicans in the Legislature set up a system of independent, statewide charter school authorizers back in 2015. One of those charter authorizers, the UW System’s Office of Educational Opportunity, has just recently begun picking up the pace, authorizing charter schools in an under-the-radar process that doesn’t include public announcements on the agency’s website. I had to do a lot of digging to find out about some of the new charters. Two of the schools the office is working with plan to use Hillsdale’s controversial Make America Great Again curriculum — Veritas Academy in Eau Claire, which it already authorized, and North Shore Classical Academy in Mequon, which has cleared Stage One of the authorization process.

Taking money out of a local public school district to fund an independent charter school with no oversight from the local school board that uses the conservative Christian Hillsdale College curriculum is not necessarily an idea embraced by all residents of the district, as some community members pointed out at the North Shore Classical Academy’s one and only community input meeting.

But the founder of the school, Cheryl Rebholz, is a proponent of disruption. She helped organize the failed recall drive against members of the Meqon-Thiensville school board last fall, which revolved around claims that “politics” in the form of anti-racist and LGBTQ-friendly policies, had invaded the schools, and that online learning during the pandemic was a disaster.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic was bad for learning and hard on kids. But the theory that sending kids and teachers home at the height of the spread of the virus was “tyranny” is absurd.

Now that everyone is back in the classroom, some of the same right-wing groups that have been pushing school privatization all along are proposing that school choice is the solution to what they call the public’s massive loss of confidence in public schools. (Never mind that proclaiming that public schools are “failing” has been a deliberate strategy by school choice advocates, including the right-wing Bradley Foundation based in Milwaukee, for decades.) A recent publication by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) takes apart a report by one such group in Ohio, which recommends privatization as a solution to learning loss during the pandemic and to address “declining confidence in public schools.”

The report “does not support its recommendations with evidence or consider potential unintended consequences, such as reduced student achievement, increased racial segregation, and reduced funding for public schools,” David S. Knight of the University of Washington, who reviewed the report for NEPC, wrote. Furthermore, disaggregating the polling data, Knight also casts doubt on the claim that the public as a whole has lost confidence in public schools (confidence has decreased precipitously only among Republicans, not among Democrats or independents).

The burden on the local public school district in Mequon-Thiensville of hosting the proposed Hillsdale charter school came up in the community meeting. A couple of attendees objected to taking money out of the local schools to fund a religious school. The UW System’s Moran explained that she evaluates “interest, need and demand” before authorizing a charter school in any district.

“The need is going to be a hard argument to make,” she acknowledged. “Mequon-Thiensville scores incredibly well. You are a high-performing district.”

“But is it meeting the needs of every single student and are there parents who want something different?” Moran asked, appearing to lower the bar considerably. As one community member said at the meeting, there are plenty of private schools available to parents who want something different. The question is whether money to pay for those other options should be taken out of the local public schools.

Unlike public schools, which can “operate in perpetuity,” Moran emphasized, the charter schools OEO authorizes can have the rug pulled out from under them and shut down after five years if OEO decides they’re not up to snuff.

But where does that leave the students, parents and community members who are invested in the school? In the rough-and-tumble, Wild West vision of universal school choice, everyone can shop around and make a different choice. But we know that stable relationships with caring adults are among the most important contributors to well-being and learning for kids. And community investment in public institutions is a group effort, nurtured over a long period of time.

That vision of community and stability is the basic framework for civil society. If instead we turn parents into shoppers, thrown on the mercy of the private market to purchase the best education for their kids, some people will find high-end private schools and get a subsidy from the government to help cover their tuition. Others will end up in a system designed for profit — like the National Heritage Academies’ Mill Creek Academy in Waukesha — recently authorized by OEO.

NHA has been busy cashing in on public education money around the country, selling expensive real estate and various services to its nonprofit charter schools and sucking up taxpayer funds for private gain. If that’s the future of schools in Wisconsin, we’re in trouble.

It turns out the board president of Mill Creek Academy is Kyle Koenen, the policy director for the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty — which spends a lot of money pushing school choice.

A sunny morning earlier today for the Mill Creek Academy charter school groundbreaking. The school is being built near the northeast corner of Highway 164 and Lawnsdale Road in Waukesha and scheduled to open to students in the fall of 2023. pic.twitter.com/WM8PCqcNfw

— Sen. Chris Kapenga (@SenatorKapenga) September 23, 2022

Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga tweeted a photo of the groundbreaking for the school, set to open next fall, with Koenen and a smiling Vanessa Moran in hardhats, wielding shovels.

They may be coming to your area soon. Watch out.

This story was written by Ruth Conniff, editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.