The last locker has been cleaned out, the last grade entered into the computer, and teachers have locked their classroom doors for the summer. In the ever changing Wisconsin way, teachers kicked off their summer break at the State Capitol. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and legislators who support public education held a press conference in the Assembly parlor surrounded by a sea of MTI red. The purpose of this press conference was to inform citizens about the drastic proposals in the state budget and to ask other legislators to take a stand for the state of Wisconsin.
Senator Chris Larson opened the press conference and immediately made it clear that this budget takes aim at the middle class. In this budget, Governor Walker has rejected federally funded Medicaid expansion and will in effect kick 88,000 people off of Badger Care. In addition, the budget calls for statewide expansion of private school vouchers which channel public dollars to private, unaccountable schools. Income taxes are to be cut by $650 million, the majority of these tax breaks geared toward the wealthy. The harmful reaches of the budget also extends to the gutting of our unemployment system and a bail “bondsmen program” which allows corporations to profit off of people in our judicial system. It is no wonder that Senator Larson made a request for one more senator to stand up and be “an agent of moderation.”
Evers opened his speech with a reminder that our public schools are currently among the best in the country. However, historic cuts to our public education system would come at a significant cost. Evers also shed light onto the significance of people being able to include private school tuition as a tax write off under this new budget. Evers concluded that even if he was a billionaire, which he joked was a title he was nowhere near, then he could get a tax break for sending his students to private school. This attack on public education is a threat to the “core of our democracy.”
Also among the pro-education legislators was Senator Lehman from Racine, Wisconsin. Racine is an area in the state that currently has the voucher program. Lehman confidently asserted that this model was not working. Not only are the models in Milwaukee and Racine not working, the voucher system does not have constiuency support. Representative Sondy Pope-Roberts stood and reported that not a single person she has talked to has asked for statewide expansion of the voucher program. MMSD School Board Vice-President, Arlene Silveira, read a letter of opposition from Madison’s new Superintendent Cheatham which also mentioned the lack of support for vouchers in the community.
The Superintendent of Baraboo schools, Crystal Ritzenhaler, echoed these concerns for rural districts. Their schools are making gains on closing achievement gaps and bringing up student achievement. She explained the need to continue funding the schools, especially at a time when 50% of her teachers are new and inexperienced. Training and professional development needs are on the increase due to a younger staff. Her remedy was to remove voucher expansion from the budget and increase the per pupil budget by $200. This proposal was met positively by applause in the parlor.
The audience energy increased when a spectator posed a question about creating two separate and unequal school systems. Milwaukee Private Schools are currently capitalizing on the draining of our public schools. Their advertisements promote art, music, and other essential experiences that the public schools are having an increasingly difficult time funding. The audience member explained that with private school vouchers we are creating one system of private, wealthy schools and another system of public, underfunded schools. In doing so, we are feeding the disparities that are already present in our society between the wealthy and the struggling and in doing so are going against the democratic ideal of a free, quality public education for all.
The budget will be taken up by the Assembly tomorrow morning and will likely be voted on by Wednesday. This means that the Senate could take up the budget as early as Thursday. Now is the time to contact all legislators and make a final plea for public education, Badger Care, and our middle class.
Many of our legislators have continued to make requests for proper hearings and public testimony to make the lack of public support for these budget items obvious and to add transparency to this process. Opponents of this budget share an ongoing concern that once the budget is passed in the Assembly, it will get pushed quickly through the Senate without enough attention spent on debate and consideration of amendments.
Larson stated that we are “rolling out the red carpet” for those who would like to show their support of public education by opposing the controversial components of this drastic budget. The future of Wisconsin public schools depend on other legislators stepping up and doing what is right for our state. After all, as Representative Peter Barca so eloquently asked, “At a time of surplus, if we won’t invest in our public schools, when will we?”