TRNN Replay: Governor Walker’s approved Wisconsin State Budget includes deep spending cuts in public education, expansion of “Voucher School” Program
DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN: Wisconsin has received widespread international media attention over Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, for its attacks against public workers and their right to collective bargaining. But there are a number of other areas that are also to be targeted by deep spending cuts and radical restructuring, like the state’s public education system. Over the next two years, K-12 public schools across the state are set to lose around $800 million in state funding. One city hit particularly hard by public education cuts is Milwaukee, which is Wisconsin’s largest city. Milwaukee public schools, which constitute the state’s largest school district, are set to lose up to $71 million in funding over the next fiscal year, as well as see the expansion of a controversial voucher school program. Larry Miller, a former Milwaukee public schools teacher and principal who now serves as the school board director for the city’s fifth district, says that the new changes will put pressure on an already strained education system.
LARRY MILLER, MILWAUKEE PUBLIC SCHOOL BOARD DIRECTOR, DISTRICT 5: The governor has pretty much declared war on us in two ways: one, by cutting our resources; and two, by supporting the expansion, the unlimited expansion, lifting all caps on private school vouchers. So this is a way to pretty much privatize education in the city of Milwaukee.
DOUGHERTY: Milwaukee’s standing voucher system, officially called the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, allows for qualified low-income students to attend private and religious schools with tax dollars earmarked for public education spending. Under the new budget bill, the program is being expanded and also introduced in other areas, while income limits have been raised so that far-higher-earning families can now also participate in the program. Proponents of the voucher model say that it gives parents and students a wider range of options when choosing schools, while also improving the quality of public schools through healthy competition. Others are concerned that it promotes a free-market system of profitable and under-regulated private schools that drain resources from public schools while not being held sufficiently accountable to taxpayers.
MILLER: But the way it’s operated is very interesting. For example, schools–and we see it firsthand all the time in the public school system–schools take students in. They over-enrol students. And then, after what’s called the third Friday, which is when you count your students–there’s a third-Friday formula that determines how many students are actually enrolled at your school. All of a sudden, there’s a number of students that are kicked out of the voucher schools. And, of course, we have to accept them. We cannot turn students away from Milwaukee public schools. We accept everyone that comes to our door. The point being, though, that as they kick them out of the voucher schools, as they remove them from the voucher schools, they get to keep the money for the rest of the semester. We get no money for teaching those students. So it helps them, lowers their class size, may help them with discipline issues or difficult teaching issues, with testing issues, a whole variety of things, while those students come to us and we must accept them. And they get to keep the money till the end of the semester.
DOUGHERTY: According to an analysis of recent census data, Milwaukee is the most racially segregated city in the country, and there are concerns that the budget cuts could intensify durable inequalities. According to Christine Neumann-Ortiz of the immigrants rights organization Voces de la Frontera, the struggle for access to quality public education in Milwaukee is being treated as a civil rights issue.
CHRISTINE NEUMANN-ORTIZ, EXEC. DIR., VOCES DE LA FRONTERA: It’s going to be a huge reversal. And it really is what–we recently just had a civil rights march in defense of public education, because that’s really what it is; it is a civil rights issue. You are, you know, creating such–exacerbating such stark levels of poverty. I mean, here in the state of Wisconsin, for instance, in Milwaukee, we are the fourth poorest city in the nation. We have very high numbers of children who are homeless. And this budget will even, you know, reduce, you know, breakfast programs for low-income families. So children won’t be able to even eat while they–you know, to be able to think in school, while at the same time this budget has been transferring–now it’s up to $200 million of tax breaks to the wealthiest, you know, families and large corporations.
DOUGHERTY: One Milwaukee school targeted by budget cuts is La Escuela Fratney, a specialty two-way bilingual elementary school, with a curriculum in English and Spanish that emphasizes community and family participation. Fratney is set to lose 33 percent of its already tight staff at the start of the next school year, leaving many outraged parents worrying over the future of not only the school, but also their children and communities.
WANSHEBA BARNES, PARENT OF STUDENT AT LA ESCUELA FRATNEY: I think we will have a lot of kids that drop out of high school. I think that we will have a lot of parents that are discouraged and may just decide not to send their kids to school. And I think overall we will have a bunch of non-productive individuals within our society that are contributing negatively towards our society.
DOUGHERTY: A number of parents and faculty members have engaged in various forms of grassroots organizing to resist moves against public workers and education. For some parents at La Escuela Fratney, like Jasmine Alinder, who is also a member of the education advocacy group I Love My Public Schools, education is one of many institutions being targeted by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin.
ALINDER: I think it’s part of a concerted effort to kill public institutions across the board. And we read a lot of letters to legislators from parents talking about what public schools would lose, and we received a response from one Republican legislator from Whitewater, and he, in the letter, said that public education was a social welfare agency and a jobs creator for public sector unions.
DOUGHERTY: The art teacher, physical education instructor, and librarian are among the more than a dozen staff at Fratney whose positions have been terminated under the budget cuts. Sue Pezanoski Browne, who is now being laid off after ten years of teaching art classes at Fratney, says that students will be missing out on essential learning processes, due to further reductions in public-school arts programs across the country.
SUE PEZANOSKI BROWNE, LAID-OFF ART TEACHER, LA ESCUELA FRATNEY: People acquire information in different ways. And the cuts over the years have narrowed the field of how children can be successful. Losing music, losing physical education, losing art is not just losing the extras; it’s really losing ways that children learn intellectually, the way they acquire information and the way they communicate it back out to the world. So I don’t think of art simply as an expressive or creative outlet. I think of it as a very rigorous intellectual thing.
DOUGHERTY: Laid-off Fratney librarian Mayra Negron worries that the children’s educational experience will not be the same after the cuts. She says that while the library may remain open in a limited capacity, public school students like those at Fratney will no longer have access to important lessons and programs that develop their skills not only as readers, but also as critical thinkers.
MAYRA NEGRON, LAID-OFF LIBRARIAN, LA ESCUELA FRATNEY: We want to be able to teach children from early on that they can think, that information is important, that it’s accessible to them, that they can–they need to be able to learn how to filter that information, and compare what they see and what they read, and make judgments based on the information they get, that not everything that is told to them is true. Public education will give that to everyone that comes in, not just the children that are coming from wealthier families. So overall the students won’t have that as part of their weekly routine at school. Might they be able to check out books? Yes, but the whole library program will not exist for them if you don’t have a librarian here.
DOUGHERTY: Students in Milwaukee stand more to lose than arts, library, and physical education programs in their schools with the changes to the education system; a number of other areas are also slated for cuts and elimination, including nursing, math, AP, and at-risk children programs.
SCOTT WALKER, GOVERNOR OF WISCONSIN: As your governor, I make this pledge: Wisconsin is open for business.
DOUGHERTY: With Governor Walker’s electoral victory and subsequent legislative advance, Wisconsin propelled itself into a newly visible and heated public discussion over shifting balances of power between the private sector and public institutions.
PEZANOSKI BROWNE: I really think it comes down to, I guess, an economic ideology about the free market. I think that the public education systems in urban areas are being destroyed to create private markets for profiteering. There is an element of class warfare going on here. Communities that can afford to have the quality, well-rounded education for their children that they deserve will continue to have it. And high-poverty areas, kids who deserve to have equal opportunities at a good life, because they come from communities without a lot of resources, are going to get a very unequal education.
DOUGHERTY: Forty-two states across the country have reportedly introduced voucher school program legislation in 2011 in what is becoming a growing trend in the United States. Public education cuts nationwide totaled more than $17 billion in the past two fiscal years, and are on track to increase in the upcoming fiscal year, as states and municipalities across the country are slashing public spending. In places like Milwaukee, the full social cost of Walker’s budget remains to be seen, as investment in K-12 education moves towards a market-oriented model. This is David Dougherty with The Real News Network.
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