STEVENS POINT – By now it’s obvious that attempts by Gov. Scott Walker and some of his pals to privatize K-12 education isn’t sitting well with many in Walker’s own party.
Walker’s plan to expand school vouchers has moderate Republicans and many from rural areas concerned. Earlier this month, 14 rural Republicans called for an increase to public school funding, in effect opposing Walker’s budget proposal that would keep revenues flat for another two years.
A deal was in the works late last week, but the Republican-controlled Legislature was still hung up on education funding. The rural Republicans, in a letter to the Joint Finance Committee’s chairs, noted they had heard from parents back home that funding must be increased. That’s “parents,” as in “voters,” and when lawmakers hear from voters in numbers, they know people are watching.
While Walker’s plan hurts public education from one end of the state to the other, rural school districts have always struggled with higher fixed costs than their urban counterparts. And because public schools are so important to rural communities, lawmakers know there will be hell to pay come election day if Walker gets his way. Republicans rule much of rural Wisconsin, but a swing in a few districts might change the makeup of the Legislature.
In a sleight of hand no one should buy, Walker’s budget calls for more state aid to school districts but freezes the cap on the total amount of money school districts can raise between aid and property taxes.
“We all know that Wisconsin has a strong history of quality education for our youth. To keep that tradition, we agree that the public schools in our districts would benefit from an increase in K-12 funding and an increase in revenue limits,” the lawmakers noted.
Walker has no such respect for public schools. As Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has courageously pointed out, Wisconsin is among states threatened by the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council’s formula for privatizing education and eroding local control. Walker is ALEC’s Wisconsin operative.
It’s not likely that Walker the Iowan has spent much time reading Wisconsin history, but it includes a rich story of how public schools were birthed here.
A fascinating account of the effort to establish “free schools,” as they were called, is told in a 1936 book, “Badger Saints and Sinners,” by Fred Holmes, a Madison writer and attorney. He devotes one chapter, “Light for a People’s Mind,” to the efforts of Michael Frank, an early legislator in the Wisconsin Territorial Assembly, to provide public education.
Poor kids didn’t have access to the private academies of those days. Frank tried twice to get the Assembly to create a public school system. On his second try, the Assembly gave him the nod, but only in one community in his district, Kenosha (then Southport), and only if voters approved.
Tempers flared when voters assembled to debate the idea. According to Holmes, one opponent shouted, “What? I be taxed to educate the Dutch and Irish! Never.”
But the referendum won, 90-79, and public education was born in Wisconsin, if only in one community. The state Constitution, framed in 1848, provided for “free schools” across the state and established a funding mechanism.
Unfortunately, Walker is busy trying to undo the work of the father of public education in Wisconsin.