NEW ORLEANS — The American Federation for Children, which wants a dramatic expansion of charter schools and voucher programs, picked a boxing theme for its annual policy summit this week.
Red boxing gloves became table centerpieces at the opening lunch Monday. Panel titles included "Knocking out yesterday's education models" and "Training parents to win the fight." And the first keynote speaker was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential contender who is best known for aggressively fighting and weakening his state's education labor unions.
Walker started his 20-minute speech by pointing out that his two sons just wrapped up the school year at two different colleges, a private Catholic university and a large public flagship. Walker said he hopes one day it will be just as normal and unsurprising for parents to split their kids between public and private K-12 schools.
"Young people need to have access to a great education, via a traditional public school, a charter school, a choice school with a voucher, a private school with a tax benefit, a virtual school or even a home school environment," Walker said. "Our goal should be to provide as many quality educational choices for parents as possible, because I trust parents."
Scott Walker talking at a pro-charter school, pro-voucher lunch today. Theme: boxing. pic.twitter.com/BWMdgtKKld
— Jenna Johnson (@wpjenna) May 18, 2015
Wisconsin is home to the nation's first modern voucher system. The state adopted legislation in 1989 that allowed some low-income students in Milwaukee to use state money at a private school. The program has expanded since then, and Walker has called for a statewide program that would be open to most if not all students, regardless of their family income or where they live. Lawmakers in Madison have been slow to embrace this proposal, which critics argue would divert money away from public school systems and to private or religious institutions with fewer accountability measures.
Walker also talked up how teachers unions in Wisconsin now have much less power, which he said has allowed school systems to more easily hire and fire teachers and save money on health insurance plans. And he called for federal authorities to give more decision-making authority to local school districts and parents. Toward the end of his speech, Walker said that increasing school choices "isn't a red issue or a blue issue, this is a red, white and blue issue."
The chairwoman of the American Federation for Children is Betsy DeVos of Grand Rapids, Mich. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, are major Republican donors who have financially supported Walker over the years, especially when he faced a recall election in 2012. DeVos said in an interview Monday that her family has donated to the political action committees of several presidential contenders or likely candidates, but they have yet to pick a favorite. DeVos added that she hopes school choice becomes a "defining issue" of the 2016 election.