Republican legislators, using the rhetoric of “accountability,” are aiming for the jugular of public education. A fast-track bill now before the Wisconsin Senate calls for the wholesale privatization of public schools in the state, in particular Milwaukee.
The bill’s consequences are obfuscated by bureaucratic double-speak, arcane details and complicated loopholes. Fundamentally, however, the bill is a frontal attack on public schools, on democracy, and on poor children. It undermines the Wisconsin constitution’s guarantee of a free and public education to all children.
Under the bill, “failing” public schools will be forced to close or be handed over to privately run charters — whether or not a locally elected school board thinks this is a good idea, and whether or not the school board has a community-based improvement plan.
Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill is a blueprint for turning over public schools to privately run charters, in particular national McFranchise charter chains.
Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill demands failure. It requires that at least 5 percent of the schools get a grade of “F” every year — no matter how the school is actually performing.
Under the guise of “accountability,” the bill sets up schools as failures and then uses this failure to promote privatization.
Devil is in the Details
The bill transforms the current state report card system into A-F letter grades. The bill states that any school that receives “a grade of F for three consecutive school years, or has received a grade of F in three of five consecutive school years and a grade no higher than D in the other two school years” will be subjected to sanctions.
These provisions apply to all publicly funded schools through Wisconsin — traditional public schools, privately run charters, and private voucher schools. But there’s a catch. Consequences for public schools are more drastic, particularly the Milwaukee Public Schools.
“F” and “D” grades will be counted against MPS this school year. Failing grades will not be counted against non-MPS schools for another two years.
As is well documented, there is a correlation between poverty and the legislature’s definition of “low performing.” The bill’s impact will be felt most by MPS, where 81 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The Republican-dominated legislature is known for its antipathy toward Milwaukee, the state’s largest and most important city. But Milwaukee also happens to vote Democratic and is home to a disproportionate number of poor people and people of color.
Not surprisingly the bill could spell the death knell for the Milwaukee Public Schools, already reeling from decades of privatization via vouchers and privately run charters overseen by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Weak Sanctions for Charters
The bill sets up dual standards for traditional public schools and privately run charters. For instance, a privately run charter’s first five years won’t count when it comes to determining possible sanctions. Second, grades for privately run charters (almost all of which are in Milwaukee) will not be counted for another two years. As I noted above, grades for MPS schools will be taken into account beginning this school year.
Weakest Provisions for Vouchers
As for the bill’s alleged concern with “accountability,” the most blatant hypocrisy involves private voucher schools. Failing voucher schools will not be required to close, but merely prevented from enrolling additional students.
To cite another glaring problem: the bill does not require voucher schools to adhere to the state’s open meetings and records laws. Nor does the bill call upon voucher schools to respect basic constitutional rights of due process or free speech, or adhere to state anti-discrimination measures in the areas of sexual orientation, marital status or pregnancy.
But here’s the bill’s most blatant hypocritical move. Voucher schools will not be required to take the same achievement tests as other publicly funded schools. Instead, they will be allowed to use a “nationally recognized, norm-referenced” test, thus making it difficult to compare achievement between public schools and voucher schools. Call me suspicious, but is this because the voucher school students have performed worse than MPS students on the Wisconsin achievement tests?
Direct Target: MPS
The bill’s authors have done nothing to hide their preference for voucher and privately run charter schools, a preference that harms public schools across the state. But there is one final kick specifically aimed at MPS.
Across the state, the school boards will be forced to turn schools over to privately run charter organizations, but at least they will have the fig leaf of a voice and must approve the contract. In Milwaukee, the superintendent can act on his own.
It’s unclear how the bill will play across the state. But stay tuned. Rumors are that the bill is being re-crafted so that it is “less favorable” to the Milwaukee Public Schools.