The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gov. Scott Walker savages Wisconsin public education in new budget

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is jumping into the race for the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

If anybody was holding out any hope that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would see even a modicum of reason and refuse to savage public education in his state, they can now let it go.  A day before jumping into the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Walker on Sunday signed a new state budget that, among other things:

* slashes $250 million from the University of Wisconsin, one of the country’s great public institutions of higher education, and ensures that most K-12 school districts will get less funding than they did last year;

* removes from state law tenure protections for University of Wisconsin professors, a move that educators say will seriously harm the school’s ability to retain and attract talented faculty;

* expands the state’s voucher program that uses public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, including religious schools — even though there is no evidence the program has helped improve student achievement in the past — and creates a new “special needs” voucher law that cuts into protections for special needs students.

The Associated Press reported that Walker said in a statement that the budget he signs “brings real reform to Wisconsin and allows everyone more opportunity for a brighter future. ” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Democrat, said in a statement that the budget “throws the people of Wisconsin under Governor Walker’s campaign bus.”

There’s much more that is damaging to the state in Walker’s budget than the measures mentioned above. Here’s a closer look in a post written by Bob Peterson, founder of the Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. This appeared on his Education for Democracy blog and I am publishing with permission.

By Bob Peterson

Gov. Scott Walker signed a biennial state budget Sunday afternoon that accelerates his quest to destroy the public sector in Wisconsin. Within 24 hours, Walker will formally announce his candidacy for president to take his right-wing agenda nationwide.

The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools. Among its measures are an expansion of a voucher program that provides taxpayer funding of private schools and cuts of $250 million to the state’s nationally renowned public university system.

Walker has the most far-reaching budget veto powers of any governor, and some people had hoped that he might ameliorate some of the more draconian measures of his budget, which was approved by the Republican controlled legislature last week. But Walker by and large let the 1,500-page budget intact, using his line-by-line veto powers to make minor tweaks.

There is one common theme to Walker’s budget: underfunding public institutions, expanding the privatization of government functions, restricting environmental protections, and decimating workers’ rights. Among its many provisions:

• Mandatory drug testing for those seeking unemployment insurance and public assistance services;
• A repeal of “prevailing wage law” requirements for local government projects, and elimination of a state mandate that factory and retail workers get at least one day off per week.
• Removing the term ”‘living wage” from state statues, referring only to a minimum wage, which in Wisconsin is $7.25 per hour.
• Decreases subsidies for recycling,
• Eliminates dozens of scientists’ position at the Department of Natural Resources, opens up thousands of acres in state forests to commercial timber cutting, restricts local zoning along lake shorelines and raises user fees at state parks.

Walker’s most damaging and telling attack on the public sector involves education.

The University of Wisconsin took a massive $250 million budget cut. In addition, tenure is no longer protected by state law but instead will be determined by the University’s Board of Regents, most of whom are gubernatorial appointees.

K-12 public schools were particularly decimated. Shortly before the budget’s signing, Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers publicly requested that Walker veto more than 20 education measures that would undermine the state’s public schools. Walker refused.

Instead, the budget continues Walker’s agenda of undermining public education.

A majority of public school districts in Wisconsin will receive less funding this year, and no school district’s state funding will keep up to inflation. At the same time, the budget expands taxpayer support of private voucher schools, which are overwhelmingly religious schools and which are subject to minimal public oversight. (For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s law prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, marital or pregnancy status. Nor are they subject to the state’s open meetings and records requirements.)

The budget also creates a new and complicated “special needs voucher” law that was opposed by all special education advocacy groups because of its detrimental effect on special education protections.

The budget also increases the number of authorizers of privately run charter schools that are not subject to the oversight of publicly elected local school boards.

In previous years, all publicly funded schools in Wisconsin — traditional public schools, voucher schools, charter schools — were required to take the same standardized tests, in order to have some semblance of comparing student achievement. The budget eliminates that requirement.

In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a “takeover” plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

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

Perhaps most indicative of Walker’s perspective is the budget’s elimination of the Chapter 220 urban-metropolitan schools desegregation program. At a time when racism and racial tensions have reached alarming levels across the United States, Walker has eliminated the only program in the state designed to counter segregation in the public schools and improve opportunities for African-Americans.

Walker signed the budget in Waukesha County, an overwhelmingly white county that is among one of the wealthiest and most conservative in the entire United States.

On Monday, Walker will return to Waukesha and officially launch his bid for president. It is an apt indication of which side he will protect in what is an increasingly divided and unequal country.