By M.D. Kittle|Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Is the Badger State gearing up for another Act-10 like battle?
Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal seeking to expand Wisconsin’s voucher and charter schools could serve as another political lightning rod in the charter school movement, possibly bringing a return to massive Capitol demonstrations, according to a national charter education expert.
“What he (Walker) is doing is attacking people who have a vested interest in the status quo,” Harvey Newman, senior fellow at the New York City-based Center for Educational Innovation, told Wisconsin Reporter Tuesday. Newman leads the center’s charter support network, an advocate of charter schools in New York and nationally.
“This will create tension in the system. It has and will continue to organize opposition,” Newman added.
Walker this week announced an ambitious budget proposal to expand school choice, among several other education initiatives that have been nearly universally cheered by school choice proponents and jeered by public school advocates.
“Every child, regardless of their zip code, deserves access to a great education,” Walker said in a statement following the release of his proposals.
The Republican governor would open the Wisconsin Parental Choice or private school voucher programs to nine new school districts – school systems with enrollment of at least 4,000 students and operating failing or near-failing schools.
And the proposal calls for the expansion of the independent charter school system, under the control of a Charter School Oversight Board. Again, students in districts with at least 4,000 students would be able to enroll in a charter school without the possibility of a so-called “district veto.”
Walker’s core conservative allies rallied around the proposal, calling it a victory for parents tired of seeing their children in failing or marginal public schools. Democrats like Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha, blasted the measure as “shortchanging public schools.”
Newman predicted Walker’s proposal will resonate nationally. He believes public school unions could come out in force, as they did two years ago, leading mass protests against Walker’s public sector collective bargaining reforms.
When the union mildly opposed New York City’s charter schools, participation was at about 1 percent of the city’s public school student body, Newman said. Today, about 6 percent of students are enrolled, organized labor has a lot more to lose through non-union charter schools and the city is “seeing much more antagonism at the union level.”
“This is going to further polarize your state,” the education expert said, asserting Walker’s stance is not good for the national charter school movement. “To see Walker become an advocate for charter schools has the potential to act as a lightning rod for unions nationally.”
Newman sees an increasingly conservative Wisconsin serving as a staging ground for a national school choice movement that other states, “especially Red States,” will be watching.
Conservative organizations like Americans for Prosperity have been very active of late in promoting expanded choice programs in Wisconsin.
The first charter school launched in Minnesota in the early 1990s. About 20 years later there were more than 5,700 charter schools nationwide, representing some 1.94 million students, according to the Center for Education Reform, National Charter School & Enrollment Statistics.
Ron Zimmer, Associate professor of the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organization in the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, said school boards, administrators, teachers and unions can no longer ignore charter schools. He said they have to find ways to co-exist, or at least deal with them.
“One of the things that is really challenging for teachers unions is the fact that the Obama administration has really embraced charter schools,” Zimmer said. “They haven’t really had an ally in Obama in charter schools.”
The vast majority of charter schools nationally operate without union representation, although there are examples of union-run charter schools.
One such school operated by the United Federation of Teachers in New York wouldn’t appear to make the cut under Walker’s proposal, according to the New York Post.
“The charter saw a mere eight of its 82 eighth-graders pass the state reading test this year, one of the worst rates of any city charter. Just 28 percent passed math,” according to the Post editorial.
While some observational studies have shown mixed test scores in charter schools, several randomized design studies have shown more positive results, Zimmer said. The professor’s analysis of charter schools in Chicago and Florida found statistically not much difference in high school test scores between charter and traditional schools, but charter school students boasted significantly higher graduation and college attendance rates, as high as 15 percent better.
Terry Brown is among the chorus of conservatives thrilled with what he calls a “bold move” and the “right move” by the governor.
Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that effectively led the cradle of the national school voucher program movement, particularly is pleased with the governor’s call for increased funding for parental choice schools. Aid payments to voucher programs would increase from $6,442 to $7,050 per pupil for K-8 schools and to $7,856 per pupil for high schools beginning in the second year of the 2013-15 state budget – the first increase since 2009-10.
Charter schools would see funding per pupil rise from $7,775 to $7,931 over the two years.
Public education advocates decried what they see is as the inequity in a budget proposal that boosts core funding for public schools by 1 percent – although Walker is pitching additional funding incentives – while choice schools see increases in some cases topping 20 percent.
“… (T)he governor is shortchanging public schools while again giving more to private voucher schools, still without any accountability,” Barca said in a statement. “At a time when our public schools continue to struggle because they lack necessary funding, how can he justify giving more to private voucher schools?”
Brown and others counter such assertions challenge the integrity of choice expansion opponents, that parental choice schools currently receive about half as much per student as Milwaukee Public Schools take in.
“Even with these increases our students will still be the lowest funded in the state, and we will have the highest percentage of poverty in state,” he said of the Milwaukee private school voucher program.
As far as choice expansion, Brown and others say public school advocates should have nothing to worry about, if their schools provide a quality product to the most important consumer: children.
“In the end, we want parents in charge of choosing their children’s school – be it traditional public, charter, choice or a religious school. Parents know best where their dollars are directed,” Brown said.
Contact Kittle at [email protected]