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Expert: Walker’s school choice plan could spark another Act 10-style battle

By   /   February 19, 2013  /   News  /   6 Comments

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.

One education expert says Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to expand school choice could lead to the kinds of public policy battles seen at the Capitol two years ago.

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]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • cheeseheadnate

    … If charter schools are the fix to ensure that every Wisconsin child gets a quality education, then why not open this up to every school district regardless of performance? If taxpayer funds are going to be used, then every taxpayer should have the option of charter schools across the state. If the taxpayers in one school district don’t have the option(s) too, then isn’t that taxation without representation?

    I personally believe that charter schools have not had the same level of scrutiny and they haven’t been researched long enough to know whether they would succeed if they had to take all the children that public schools have to take.

    Have charter schools cherrypicked their students, and will their overall results show something different if they were to take ALL students into their ranks?

    I think there are too many questions, and we need better peer review of these charter schools (whilst they are held to the exact standards that public schools do operate under).

  • FisherRog

    I was and am under the impression that it costs about $3.000.00 less to educate students in private voucher schools than the cost per pupil to educate (or fail to) in public schools. If Vouchers expand, how does that increase our taxes when the $$$ outlay is less? Just wodering about a protester’s sound bite on TV.

  • Amfortas5

    Lots of money around—unfortunately it goes into the teacher’s pockets instead of into the children’s education. If public schools want more money let them care more about the students than the teacher’s retirement.

  • Roy

    ” .. If charter schools are the fix to ensure that every Wisconsin child
    gets a quality education, then why not open this up to every school
    district regardless of performance? ”

    It is being done incrementally starting with the worst schools first. If he were to go “all in” at once the unions would be so angry that they might burn the state to the ground. All to prove a point that they are still relevant.

  • Why do conservatives hate teachers? Why do you think they are overpaid? Plumbers make more money. The real problem is that a good education lowers your chances of being an evangelical xian. Next they will be making ‘creationism’ a mandatory course in science. Believe me, there is nothing in this nation that is being fixed by republicans. Most red states lead in teen pregnancy, and trail in test scores. They want to take this nonsense to the entire country. Stop them.

  • Dan

    Conservatives do not hate teachers. We hate a system that guarantees pensions we knew we couldn’t pay when they were passed. Interesting statistic on teen pregnancy. I didn’t see a reference. Was that something they taught in teacher school? Make it up and it must be true. Lets pretend it was true. Might a simple explanation be the blue states pregnant teens abort their babies and therefore they never make the stats? Whatever. Come up with a way to pay fur the crap these teachers are demanding and maybe one or two of your arguments may stand. But for the moment all the democrats whining can be rebutted with a simple: WE’RE BROKE!