We must stand up to school privatizers for the sake of Wisconsin kids — from the Wisconsin Examiner

Read an op-ed on the need for real talk on school privatization by our Director of Digital Organizing & Communications, Christian Phelps, below.

This is an opinion column. To take a deeper dive into school funding, check out our archive of school funding resources from education experts in Wisconsin. And to learn more about privatization, fair funding, and how to hold leaders accountable for doing what’s right by kids, visit our Accountability In Action Hub at WisconsinNetwork.org/Accountability.

An abbreviated version of this column was published on Thursday, September 21, 2023 in the Wisconsin Examiner.

As students, educators, and families go back to school for the 2023-24 year, Wisconsin sits in a strange position. To put it plainly, we aren’t protecting young people’s rights and freedoms. Lawmakers and decision-makers in our state are avoiding real accountability and disrespecting our right to democracy, leaving those young people without fair or just representation at the top.

And we must not fall for any dishonesties that suggest we can privatize our way to a better future.

Financially, individuals are feeling the crunch. Working-class, average families across Wisconsin are still struggling to keep up with inflation while wealth continues to consolidate at the very top. Essentials, from gas and utilities to food and housing, are significantly more expensive relative to wages and income than they were just a few years ago.

But there’s no actual scarcity at the state level. Even after the new budget passed this summer (despite the ‘no’ votes of every single Democrat and two Republicans in our legislature), Wisconsin sits on a $4 billion surplus—that’s $4 billion in extra money, taxes already paid, just sitting around, doing nothing, on top of the existing state budget.

The budget we just got does little to close that gap between how average individuals and those in power are experiencing our economy. Our public schools in Wisconsin, which educate over 800,000 students per year, got measly, less-than-inflationary increases in per-pupil spending authority. As an aggregate, they’re on pace for a 16th consecutive year of falling behind inflation.

As I’ve learned over years of public school work and advocacy, including over three years with Wisconsin Public Education Network, our state’s public school funding system is flagrantly uneven and unfair. Changes in the state budget do not affect all districts equally. In fact, early numbers from the Department of Public Instruction show nearly 40% of school districts starting this school year with less state aid than they received last year.

School boards feeling the pinch have increasingly resorted to local referenda just to cover basic operating costs. Yes, you read that right: even though many billions of our state tax dollars are sitting dormant in Madison, more and more local taxpayers have to double dip in their own pockets just to keep the lights on at their schools.

And the state has given a tiny increase in its reimbursement of special education costs—from 30% of costs to 33.3% of costs—doing almost nothing to close the $1.25 billion special education funding gap in our public schools last year. Services mandated by law and moral conviction—special education programs and supports our public schools happily offer—remain largely unfunded by the state or federal governments, further stretching resources at the local level.

The problems facing Wisconsin public schools have multiple causes, but we need to address a major one: the school privatization movement. As part of a compromise struck behind closed doors between Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican leaders of our gerrymandered legislature, we’re watching helplessly as a record increase of our public dollars go to private schools participating in Wisconsin’s several voucher programs. 

While public schools get 33.3% of their special education costs reimbursed by the state, Special Needs Vouchers going to private schools are funded at no less than 90%.

Let’s be crystal clear about the uneven impact of this policy. Students with disabilities, students in poverty, and students of color bear the brunt. Public schools, which, unlike private voucher schools,  are mandated to serve everyone who comes through the doors, are cutting programs and scrambling for resources as special ed costs eat up more and more of their budget. 

Meanwhile, high schools participating in the statewide Parental Choice Program are enjoying a staggering 37% increase in state funds. Many private schools are now guaranteed over $12,000 per voucher student — more than the $11,000 per pupil that many public school districts are even allowed to spend. Year after year, DPI data show that the majority of participants in the program never went to a public school. Yet taxpayers are covering their private school tuition, to the detriment of public schools that serve everyone.

Wisconsin students deserve schools that are fully-resourced and that fully protect their rights and freedoms to learn, play and thrive. Even when they receive public funds, private schools are under no obligation to follow nondiscrimination laws pertaining to gender, sexual orientation, religion, or disability status. They can, and in some cases they do, impose curricula rooted in religious practices and political dogma, blatantly pushing disputable opinions and discriminatory political agendas as if they are facts.

We can’t make good on students’ right to a free and joyful education if we can’t hold our schools accountable. Every public dollar siphoned off to private schools in Wisconsin means less local control and public participation. Publicly funded private schools operate outside  open records laws, outside the supervision of publicly-elected school boards, without  transparency or public accountability.

I attended Eau Claire’s excellent public schools throughout my childhood. For many of my peers, these schools were the most consistent institution in their lives, offering meals and mentorship alongside math and music.

When the world of adults around me voted to ban same-sex marriage in Wisconsin, my public schools maintained a legal obligation to protect me from discrimination as I went through the turbulence of childhood and adolescence, slowly coming into my own identity as an LGBTQ+ member of our community.

These protections are not trivial. They can be life-altering. In 2012, when I graduated from high school, I only knew of a single-digit number of my peers who had also come out publicly as LGBTQ+ (many of them after years of invasive questioning, intimidation, and coercion from peers who, in the defense of all kids, didn’t know any better). A supportive institution is essential in moments like that.

My first post-college, full-time job was as a special education assistant in a public elementary school. The joys of working directly with students were so real. Just as real was the immense stress that came with both the moral urgency of meeting their needs and the utter lack of resources to give them the support they deserved.

I would have liked to build a deeper relationship with the families of my students. But at the end of the school day, I had another job to get to. All of my fellow hourly employees either had multiple jobs or a spouse with additional income — or both. We were motivated but exhausted, our hours limited and our ability to make change throttled.

I’m not here to sugarcoat anything. I’m not an apologist for the very real discrimination that exists within our public schools. Wisconsin’s teacher workforce does not reflect its students, as teachers of color are more frequently pushed out of the profession and there is still racism, homophobia and injustice within our public schools.

But only a public system—with public participation, a truly representative decision-making structure, and robust funding—can offer us the freedom to actually address the issues we face.

As archaic and complex as the issues are, the solutions are so simple, and they’re within our reach. Our state has a massive, multibillion-dollar surplus. We could invest it in public schools and target the dollars where the needs are greatest. Every student with a disability could get the support they need from the state, and their public school districts could fully staff their programs with well-compensated adults who will build lifelong relationships with students and families. Districts could focus their energy on hearing from communities and building curricula and policies that meet those communities’ needs. Every dollar we spend on private schools is a dollar we don’t spend on this.

How did we get here? A legislature as gerrymandered as Wisconsin’s means votes aren’t equally valuable and our leaders don’t have to listen to a majority of us. Big money interests see education not as a shared service but a profit opportunity, and are pushing private school vouchers as a way to drain public resources, promoting the idea that vouchers are more responsible and innovative than public schools, even though, to be frank, they just don’t work.

The longer we fail to stop this, the worse it gets.

Let’s make 2023-24 the school year that Wisconsin finally stands up to the privatization lobby, uniting to put pupils before profit and democracy before disinformation.

Visit WisconsinNetwork.org/Accountability to learn more about how this works, and then share that information to help everyone around us understand it, too. It should be politically unviable to expand a scheme that lines the pockets of lobbyists and profiteers, starves our public schools, and fails to produce meaningful results. We can make it so.

We don’t have to agree on everything, but let’s agree on this: Only an accountable, well funded, high quality  public  school system can protect the lives and freedoms of all kids.

About the author: Christian Phelps

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