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What the heck is going on with Wisconsin public education?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gestures as he speaks at the Freedom Summit on May 9 in Greenville, S.C. Several hundred Republican activists are gathered to hear from almost a dozen declared and potential presidential candidates including Walker. (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)
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What is the Wisconsin Legislature trying to do to public education in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s state?

State Superintendent Tony Evers has gone on record accusing lawmakers of moving toward new legislation “that erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system.”  How? By legislature efforts that include refusing to spend more money on public education while giving millions of dollars more to expand a private voucher program, slashing higher education funding, and  weakening licensing rules for teachers.

Evers said in a statement:

“Wisconsin is nationally renowned for its quality public schools. We are a leader among the states in graduation rates, Advanced Placement participation, and ACT scores because of our highly trained educators and the support of families and local communities. The citizens of Wisconsin — measured by budget hearings, local advocacy, and recent polls — voiced their overwhelming support for our public schools and increasing funding in this budget.
“I am troubled that the Joint Finance Committee spent its time and effort designing a plan that erodes the basic foundation of Wisconsin’s public school system. If we want all students to achieve, we cannot continue to ask our public schools to do more with less. The eventual outcome of that exercise will be two systems of public schools: those in local communities that can afford to provide a quality education through referendum and those that cannot.”

Education proposals by the Joint Committee on Finance largely reflect the broad agenda set by Walker,  who is considered a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.  Lawmakers have expanded on some of the more general language in his budget proposal (such as by spelling out how teacher licensure should be changed) and added a few things of their own.

Walker, in fact, had proposed a $127 million cut in K-12 funding and lawmakers restored the cut in their proposal — though they are not giving more money to public school districts for the first time in more than 20 years next year while at the same time spending millions more to expand to expand a school voucher program that uses public money to fund private education.  The plan includes a voucher program for special-needs students, which critics say would reduce resources that public schools have for special-needs students.

It is worth noting that for the current school year, 75 percent of the applications to the voucher program were already in private school, according to the education department, and for the 2015-16 school year, 79.9 percent. Doesn’t that sound like a subsidy for the private school population?

There’s more: Lawmakers are pushing for budget cuts in the University of Wisconsin higher education system — possibly $150 million for each of the next two years.  That makes Wisconsin one of only six states that have approved or are considering reducing higher education funding for the next fiscal year, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper notes that Wisconsin now spends less on higher education than all of its neighbors: Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

[Wisconsin Gov. Walker sued for withholding public documents on secret bid to change university’s mission]

What is on the education agenda of the Joint Committee on Finance of the state legislature? From the Department of Public Instruction:

•For the first time ever, there is no increase in state imposed revenue limits over the next two school years, while voucher and independent charter school payments are increased in each year.
•State general equalization aid to public schools is cut in the first year to pay for voucher expansion and increased independent charter school payments. This leaves public schools with less state general aid than in 2010.
•Continues the freeze on state special education aid for what will be the eighth consecutive year, covering roughly a quarter of district special education costs while creating a new voucher program that drains funds from public schools.
•Essentially eliminates teacher licensing standards by allowing public and private schools to hire anyone to teach, even those without a bachelor’s degree, planting Wisconsin at the bottom nationally, below states with the lowest student achievement levels.
•Imposes a new state test on today’s 10th-graders in all public schools and private school students receiving vouchers that they must pass to graduate in two years.

Here’s part of a  May 27 news release from the department on proposed changes to he way teachers are licensed:

Major changes to teacher licensing voted into the 2015-17 state budget, without a hearing, puts Wisconsin on a path toward the bottom, compared to the nation, for standards required of those who teach at the middle and high school level.
Adopted as a K-12 omnibus motion by the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC), the education package deregulates licensing standards for middle and high school teachers across the state. The legislation being rolled into the biennial budget would require the Department of Public Instruction to license anyone with a bachelor’s degree in any subject to teach English, social studies, mathematics, and science. The only requirement is that a public school or school district or a private choice school determines that the individual is proficient and has relevant experience in each subject they teach. Traditional licensure requires educators in middle and high school to have a bachelor’s degree and a major or minor in the subject they teach, plus completion of intensive training on skills required to be a teacher, and successful passage of skills and subject content assessments.

That’s not all. The proposal would require the education department to issue a teaching permit to people who have not — repeat have not — earned a bachelor’s degree, or potentially a high school diploma, to teach in any subject area, excluding the core subjects of mathematics, English, science, and social studies. “The only requirement would be that the public school or district or private voucher school determines that the individual is proficient and has relevant experience in the subject they intend to teach. And, the department would not be permitted to add requirements.

Evers is quoted as saying:

“We are sliding toward the bottom in standards for those who teach our students. It doesn’t make sense. We have spent years developing licensing standards to improve the quality of the teacher in the classroom, which is the most important school-based factor in improving student achievement. Now we’re throwing out those standards.”

Meanwhile, Walker hasn’t said anything publicly that would make anyone think he doesn’t agree with the education path on which the legislature has embarked.

Walker was recently sued by a nonprofit watchdog group alleging that he is refusing to make public documents relating to an effort by his office to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin that is embedded in state law. Earlier this year, Walker submitted a budget proposal that included language that would have changed the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system — known as the “Wisconsin Idea” and embedded in the state code  — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

If the language had become law, it would have created a fundamental change in the University of Wisconsin. The traditional mission is to broadly educate students to be active, productive citizens in the U.S. democracy, while Walker’s language would have turned the school into more of a training ground for workers to populate the American work force. Walker failed to mention the suggested change in a speech he gave about the budget, but after it was discovered by the nonprofit Madison- -based Center for Media and Democracy, the governor withdrew the language and said it was a “drafting error.” The center tried to get documents related to the episode under the Freedom of Information Act and sued when Walker’s administration refused to release some of them, claiming they are protected by  “deliberative process privilege.”

(Correction: The Center for Media and Democracy is based in Madison, not Washington, as an earlier version said. And fixing wording in second graf.)