Last week was National School Choice Week, and both supporters and opponents of school vouchers took to the statehouse to rally their respective troops.
In what was reported to be the first trip to the statehouse by a sitting vice president, Mike Pence and Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos attended a Wisconsin School Choice Showcase to celebrate 30 years of school choice in the state. They spoke to hundreds of students who attend voucher and charter schools.
Meanwhile, a collection of Democratic lawmakers led by state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff of Milwaukee introduced legislation to end the state's choice programs completely.
Assembly speaker Rob Vos (R-Rochester) welcomed the pair of Trump administration officials, observing that Wisconsin's school choice program started with seven schools and 300 students, but now has grown to more than 40,000 students statewide.
"I believe Wisconsin needs more and not less educational freedom," Vos said. "School choice produces results and should continue to grow in our state."
The vice president touted what he called the program's extraordinary success.
"Thirty years ago, Gov. Tommy Thompson made history when he created the first school choice program in America," Pence said. "Gov. Scott Walker built on that progress when he expanded the program statewide. And, today, thanks to their leadership and the support of the people of Wisconsin, more than 40,000 students are able to attend the school of their choice."
Pence said he was for school choice before school choice was cool.
"I mean, literally, I watched this movement grow over the last 30 years," he said. "I've seen firsthand the thousands of promising young lives that it's touched in my home state of Indiana and all across this country. And it's deeply meaningful for me to have played some small role in that story in my state, and now having an opportunity to support programs like this all across America."
On average, Pence said, Wisconsin students in the parental choice program score higher on the ACT test than their peers.
"In Milwaukee, kids from underserved communities who go to choice or charter schools get better test scores and are more likely to graduate," he said. "According to one study, students in choice programs are also more likely to go to college here in Wisconsin."
What's even more remarkable, Pence said, is that when parents get a choice, kids get better grades.
"And not just the kids who go to choice schools, but every child, no matter where they go to school, does better when the parents get to choose," he said.
For the past 30 years, the vice president said, Wisconsin has shown that when parents are given the opportunity to choose the best school for their children - whether public or private, parochial, Christian, or homeschool - outcomes improve, students do better, and education improves for everyone.
Pence also said he and Trump were working with DeVos to create a new program called Education Freedom Scholarships to provide more than $5 billion in school choice programs across America.
Not everyone was pleased with Pence's visit. Gov. Tony Evers refused to attend the event, and the American Federation of Teachers Wisconsin said the Trump administration was anti-federal education spending.
"Vice President Pence has no business talking about education in Wisconsin, since the Trump administration has consistently attempted to cut billions in federal funding for education, while increasing funding for private and charter schools," said AFT-Wisconsin president Kim Kohlhaas.
The union argues that the state Legislature will redirect $223 million in state aid for public schools to fund private and charter schools this year, an increase of 68% since 2012.
"We need to be promoting policies that invest in our communities," Kohlhaas said. "If the vice president wants to help, he should be advocating for increased public school funding, instead of finding yet more tax cuts for the wealthy."
Meanwhile, state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (D-Milwaukee), and other Democrats reintroduced the Public Education Reinvestment Act (PERA), legislation that would phase out the state's voucher programs.
"Public education in Wisconsin and the United States is under attack," Brostoff said. "Over the past few decades, school privatizers like Betsy DeVos have bought enough politicians to ram through school voucher programs across the country, often under the cover of darkness and without meaningful public input."
Brostoff said such "privatizers" and their allies have shown a willingness to sell out the nation's children for the sake of lining their own pockets. With PERA, Brostoff said, public dollars would remain in the hands of the public.
Specifically, the Public Education Reinvestment Act (PERA) would reinstate and expand the former Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program while phasing out Wisconsin's voucher schools. The bill's authors say years of research have shown that voucher programs siphon significant amounts of money away from public school districts while performing at the same level or worse than traditional public schools.
"These privatizers are so afraid of the truth that no less than the vice president put my name in his mouth today when he spoke at the Wisconsin School Choice Showcase at the Capitol," Brostoff said. "Well, I have one message for Mike Pence: you work on not locking up any more innocent children; I'll work on public education in Wisconsin, and keep my name out your mouth."
Bill co-author Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) likewise said the school choice programs were siphoning off critical funding from public schools into an unaccountable, opaque private system that doesn't improve outcomes.
"Under this deal, taxpayers and students both lose," Emerson said. "Instead of funding a separate, non-transparent school system, we should dedicate ourselves to reducing class sizes and ensuring our neighborhood public schools have the resources they need so every student in Wisconsin can succeed. Public schools are the heart of every Wisconsin community and I will continue to work to reestablish our state's reputation as a leader in K-12 and higher education."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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