Wisconsin's political leaders, including Governor Scott "Hoping To Be Ready For National Prime Time" Walker, are doing their best to really, truly dismantle public education.
It's a challenging story to write about, because people who aren't following education these days think phrases like "dismantle public education" are hyperbole. They aren't. Wisconsin is on a path to do away with public education as we know it.
Wisconsin has been doing its best to break the teaching profession. Walker made himself a national player four years ago by stripping all public sector unions of the power to collectively bargain. That has worked out just about as badly as could have been predicted; people are hired and fired based on, well, anything bosses feel like basing hiring and firing on this week. Wages are less than robust. It has led to teachers saying things like this from Sean Karsten, a thirty-two year old first year reading instructor:
I just look to keep improving my teaching in the best way I can and try to keep my nose out of the other stuff.
Union membership has plummeted-- why spend money on dues for an organization that can't actually do anything when you need that money more for, say, food for your children? But that means there's nobody to effectively stand up to Walker's newest proposal.
It emerged last January as a proposal for alternative certification. "Let's give people with life experience teaching jobs," said Walker. Since then, the legislature has been fleshing out the details, bringing us to the current point-- a proposal people who never graduated from high school could end up teaching high school. (You can see the whole history of the idea in AP releases here.)
Wisconsin would retain some standards-- to teach English, social studies, math or science you would have to have a bachelors degree. In something. Anything. And, weirdly enough, this would only apply grades 6 through 12. In Wisconsin, a first grade teacher would require a real teaching degree, but you could teach twelfth grade chemistry with a bachelors degree in art history.
Walker has been very successful selling the narrative of teachers being overpaid fancy-pants who think they're so special with their uppity college degrees while demanding to soak the taxpayers for upscale benefits far better than anything the cashier at the Pick'n'Save ever gets. This is just more of that-- after all, teaching is a job pretty much anybody would do, anyway. If this all happens, Wisconsin will have the distinction of being the first state in which Teach for American volunteers will be overqualified. In Walker's Wisconsin, anybody will be able to "be a teacher," even without an ivy league degree or five whole weeks of training.
Just yesterday, the legislature's budget writing committee approved a policy allowing the University of Wisconsin to gut the schools of Madison and Milwaukee.
We've visited Milwaukee before, viewing a legislative idea that turned the war on poverty into a war on the poor. I'm going to be speculative here, and do some between-the-lines reading. But I come from a state with a big rural-urban split, and I seem to see a similar issue in Wisconsin-- a big bunch of rural not-very-wealthy (white) folks who unhappily, even angrily, see themselves as being soaked for too many tax dollars that are going to take care of those lazy urban poor (black) folks. If I'm wrong, I'll count on someone from Wisconsin to correct me.
At any rate, the legislature would like to give UW the power to start up as many independent charters as they like. Well, actually, it commands UW to appoint somebody to the of Grand High Authorizer; local school boards will have no say. Under the Wisconsin method, those newly approved charters can be explicitly for-profit (all modern charters make a profit-- the only variation is in the book-keeping and smoke-mirror combinations to cover the revenue stream). And of course all of the charters will suck their lifeblood directly from the veins of the public system.
Imagine that somebody pulls up to your yard and starts building a house in the middle of your lawn. When you object, they show you a letter from the state capital-- not only can they build there, but you will be responsible for paying all of their bills and making sure they make a handsome income on top of that.
This is not entirely new. Charters have been previously authorizable by Milwaukee City Council, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Nor is this a completely out of left field. This proposal comes with the loving support of Sen. Alberta Darling, the same legislator who co-outlined the proposal to drop a house on Milwaukee's poor.
And while the Madison-Milwaukee proposal is the markee move here, don't miss this other tasty detail.
The proposal also allows the Waukesha County Executive to authorize independent charter schools in that county. Sen. Paul Farrow, who headed the Senate’s effort to overhaul accountability for schools, is leaving the Senate in July after recently being elected Waukesha county executive.
Sigh. Some days I think the only way these reformsters could get more lazy and transparent would be to propose legislation requiring the state to deliver bales of money directly to their homes.
The Wisconsin State Journal did round up a couple of fine reactions to this latest educational gut shot. From Madison School Board member Ed Hughes:
It looks like the UW President is required to appoint someone who could then authorize as many publicly funded but potentially for-profit charter schools in Madison as that unelected and unaccountable person wanted.
And Madison School Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham was equally blunt:
We are incredibly determined, and we are making progress on behalf of all children. But at every step of the way, the Legislature puts more barriers in our way and makes our jobs more difficult.
Wisconsin's Education Twilight
So the bottom line-- in Scott Walker's Wisconsin, I can set up a charter school at taxpayer expense and staff it with pretty much anybody I like (and who will get whatever pay I feel like giving them--at taxpayer expense). My only out-of-pocket costs might be some up front "processing fees" for the Grand High Authorizer.
The possibilities are endless. Heck, every member of my family could become a member of my charter school faculty. If my family is too small, I could recruit staff from the Pick'n'Save-- if they schedule their cashier shifts in the evening and teach during the day, they can make some nice extra money on the side.
My condolences to the few actual teachers left in Wisconsin. It has to be lonely, and getting progressively lonelier, as Wisconsin works hard to become the Mississippi or the North. The only thing worse than being an actual teacher in Wisconsin will be being a student who hopes to get an actual education.