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Mary Burke talks with fellow school board member Arlene Silveira during a school board meeting the night after declaring her candidacy for governor. Burke, a Democrat, lost. Her party also won't control either half of the Legislature. 

The midterm elections were barely over and members of the Madison School Board were already predicting a tough two years or more of total Republican control of state government.

The board was likely to “hunker down ... in terms of educational initiatives the Legislature decides to put us through,” member Ed Hughes told The Capital Times.

Member Dean Loumos said the private school voucher program — a favorite of Republicans and one they plan to expand in the next session — is “gutting public education.”

It’s a well-worn cliche in Democratic Madison to blame much of what ails public education on decisions made by Republicans at the Capitol. It’s a curious one, too, given that one pretty concrete measure of school desirability has been raising questions about the quality of Madison public schools for years — no matter who’s been in control at the Capitol.

No doubt, Madison school officials are right to be wary of at least some of the GOP’s education initiatives.

Pressured by Tea Party types suffering under the delusion that the Common Core educational standards are some kind of Barack Obama mind-control plot, Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP leaders have voiced support for ditching the core — and thereby wasting the millions of dollars that have gone into implementing it — so that they can come up with new, Wisconsin-specific standards.

While vouchers are only an a priori evil to those with a financial or ideological stake in traditional public schools, Republicans did themselves no favors in 2013 when they expanded the program statewide without making their receipt contingent on not having attended a private school the year before.

The prior-year requirement was included when lawmakers expanded the program to Racine in 2011. It not only fits the voucher program’s mission — to give public school students another taxpayer-funded educational option — but blunts criticism from public school devotees that vouchers are just an entitlement for rich families who have already shown they can afford private school tuition on their own.

A year ago, I didn’t get much in the way of an answer when I asked Republican leaders why they didn’t apply the Racine requirement to the statewide program. They were similarly noncommittal last week when I asked them about their plans for future voucher expansion.

“(Senate Majority Leader Scott) Fitzgerald anticipates that this session will see some increase in the number of students able to benefit from Wisconsin’s school choice program, but has not made any predictions on how exactly a statewide voucher expansion will look,” Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said.

By contrast, a Republican-crafted school accountability system could make education more transparent for parents — assuming private voucher schools are included in the mix. Of course, public schools officials will never accept a rating system that includes a failing-grade option; some things are OK for students, but not for the people who educate them.

None of these initiatives is any older than 2011, when Republicans took over complete control of the state government, but parents have been voting against the Madison district — with their feet — since they were first allowed to in 1998.

The open enrollment program was included in the 1997 state budget bill and allows parents to enroll their children in any public school district that has the space.

In the years since, the Madison district has never seen more students coming in than going out. In the current school year, 1,203 children living within the district’s boundaries opted to go to other districts, according to a district report. Another 372 opted to come into Madison from other districts.

A 2009 survey of families who took advantage of the open enrollment program to leave Madison found that 61 percent of parents pointed to environmental problems with Madison schools as among the reasons they left. Overcrowded classrooms, bullying and poor communication were among the specific complaints.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the district is seeing “some really promising signs in our most recent (open enrollment) numbers” for the current school year, including a drop in the number of students opting to leave the district for the first time.

And, to be clear, I am the father of three children in a Madison elementary school that has served them and their parents well.

My family, though, tends to be like the families with whom the district has the most success — white, middle-class, with college-educated parents. Increasingly, Madison families are not that. Nor are they as well-served.

Madison’s history with open enrollment is one good reason the School Board might want to worry less about what’s going on at the Capitol and more about what its educators are doing in the schools.

The best reason is the changing nature of the families the schools serve.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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