Scott Walker's War on Equality

"The American system of public education is the greatest mechanism for social and economic mobility in the history of the world." I wish I had said that. Actually, it was my friend Tim. Tim is a conservative Republican. Let me clarify that. At various points in his life Tim has been a professional conservative Republican, with credentials that make Scott Walker look like an over-promoted Boy Scout. Among other things, Tim was the Chairman of California College Republicans, a member of the CA GOP State Executive Committee, and a GOP nominee for state Assembly. In other words, there is nothing liberal or Democratic about recognizing the fact that an assault on public education is an assault on equality.

I do not mean to minimize the extent of inequalities in American education that Jonathan Kozoll and Jennifer Hochschild have so ably documented. And Wisconsin is no different. Since 1993 the state has employed an insanely complicated system of "tiered" state and local funding that numerous analyses show has resulted in money being funneled toward wealthier districts and away from those most in need. The poorer districts in Wisconsin are already operating on a shoestring. But despite all its defects, it remains the case that in America, and specifically in Wisconsin, publicly funded education is a powerful equalizing force, almost the only one left.

Scott Walker's budget seeks to change all that. The budget that Walker unveiled on March 1st contains cuts to education that will devastate Wisconsin's traditionally fine system of public schools, including specific provisions that end state funding for Advanced Placement courses and "science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs," among many other things. There is a great deal to be said about those cuts and their likely consequences, but the cuts in state funding are actually not the most disturbing part of Walker's budget. What is even more disturbing is this: Walker's budget mandates a 5.5% cut in per-pupil local education spending, approximately $550 per pupil. This has absolutely nothing to do with balancing the state budget: it doesn't save the state a dime. This rule specifies that overall education spending must decline regardless of the wishes of the residents of a local district. No district will be permitted to maintain even its current level of property tax-based funding for education, let alone increase that tax to offset state cuts.

Again, this is a provision that does not save the state a dime (not to mention making a mockery of the idea of local control.) To mandate cuts in local spending on top of cuts in state spending is astonishing. Do the math (and thank your math teacher): cuts in state funding plus cuts in local funding equals the end of all those "special" programs. In poorer districts the effects will be even more extreme; here is an excellent analysis by Andre Reschovsky (LaFollete School of Public Affairs) of the distribution of economic effects across districts.

But never mind the poor districts for a moment. What's going to happen in the wealthier districts? I find it hard to believe that Wisconsin Republicans (let alone Democrats) will want to send their children to schools that offer no AP classes or advanced courses in math and science, not to mention drug education programs, language programs, and K-5 enrichment programs. And in fact, that's not likely to happen. Instead, what is likely to happen is a whole new level of inequality.

The first thing that is likely to happen is that families who can afford it will flee the public schools; Walker's budget is the best advertisement for Wisconsin private schools that could be imagined. One local private school in the Madison area reports double the number of inquiries compared with a year ago -- and that was before the budget was unveiled.

And there's another solution: privatize public education. That's what happened in Seattle. Years ago, confronted by deep cuts in education spending, local districts established private foundations. Alumni and current parents contribute money which is then spent in the district. One of the most successful is Roosevelt High School in Seattle: they boast the only full time drama program in the state, funded by private spending. Here's the web site for Roosevelt's private foundation. The list of current grants covers a range of items, including Chemistry textbooks. The school's principal is on the Board of Directors. Now take a look at the names on the Advisory Board: the name "Nordstrom" gives you some idea of the socioeconomic profile of the district. As for other districts that cannot sustain a private foundation? They'll just have to do without Chemistry textbooks. And Washington's shortage of funding for public education is nothing compared to the scenario that Governor Walker is unleashing on Wisconsin.

The budget that Governor Walker announced today cannot be described by any of the usual terms. This is a budget that is targeted like a guided missile, and its target could not be more clear: Governor Walker wants to destroy the state's system of publicly funded education and replace it with charter schools (teaching certification not required), private schools, and private funding.

This would be shocking anywhere -- in Wisconsin it is inconceivable. Let me tell you something about Wisconsin. We like to think we are not just another state. At the University of Wisconsin we talk a lot about "the Wisconsin Idea," the idea that we have a specific mission to serve the public of our state in the tradition of the land grant colleges. Every semester I have been here I have met at least one student who has told me that he or she is the first person in their family to go to college. Those students are the best thing about teaching at a public university. They are what public education is all about. They come from small towns in the northern part of the state, often from families that operate farms or small businesses in their communities. They leave here and they go on to become lawyers or scientists or teachers, or to start businesses of their own.

This is what the Tea Party's capture of the Republican Party has brought us. Right here in Wisconsin we are sounding the death knell for the single greatest mechanism of social and economic mobility that the world has ever known.