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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Walker Lauded for Education Privatization in D.C.

But voucher proponent Howard Fuller criticizes Walker's expansion plans

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Amid protests, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who wants to cut almost $900 million from public K-12 education, gave a keynote speech at the conservative pro-privatization American Federation for Children's National Policy Summit on Monday night, crediting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program with helping to raise test scores and drive economic growth. In fact, the various evaluations of the voucher program have shown neither of those results.

The governor said he was “blessed” to have been able to vote for vouchers while he served in the state Legislature in the early 1990s, and linked the program to job growth during that decade.

“When you make a commitment to true education reform, it helps your state's economy,” Walker told the Washington, D.C., crowd after dinner and drinks.

Although the voucher program has grown steadily through the years, Walker is proposing radical changes that would end its original intent to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the tuition of low-income students at private schools, primarily religious or church-based schools.

Even Howard Fuller, the voucher program architect who received the John T. Walton Champions for School Choice award at the Monday event, criticized Walker's attempt to provide vouchers to students from wealthy families.

Walker is asking in his budget to phase out income eligibility requirements for vouchers, which ultimately would allow wealthy families to use a voucher to send their children to private schools. That move has been roundly criticized by Milwaukee leaders—including former state Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams, who promoted the original voucher program while she served in the state Assembly—as well as Fuller.

“I appreciate what the governor had to say and I understand the importance of the middle class,” Fuller told the group minutes after Walker's speech. “But I just want to say to you all, as clearly as I can, that the poorest people in our society are the ones who need the help the most. And at no point in time—I don't care how politically fashionable it becomes: I will never give up raising a voice for the poorest parents.”

American Federation for Children has a long history in Wisconsin politics and continues to be actively involved in campaigns. The pro-voucher group and its offshoot, All Children Matter, are headed by Betsy DeVos, who is married to the billionaire heir to the Amway fortune and is a contributor to Republicans who support their extreme pro-free-market agenda.

The organizations have spent an estimated $3.5 million in Wisconsin races since 2004, according to numbers compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and they are supporting Republican senators who could be recalled, along with a lone Democrat—Milwaukee state Sen. Lena Taylor.

Former Republican Assembly leader Scott Jensen is American Federation for Children's senior adviser.

On Tuesday, legislative Democrats decried the amount of money voucher supporters are pouring into the state, arguing that legislators are promoting vouchers over the objections of state residents who don't support state subsidies for private education.

Lifting the Cap and More

As governor, Walker has proposed eliminating the cap on the number of students in the Milwaukee voucher program and expanding it beyond the city limits. On Monday night he promised that Beloit, Racine and Green Bay would have voucher programs as well. However, in his speech and in his budget, Walker failed to address the program's funding flaw, which penalizes local property taxpayers, who are forced to support dueling school districts—the public school district and the voucher schools. If Walker's voucher program is replicated in other cities or counties, those property taxpayers will be penalized by the funding flaw as well.

Walker has also proposed ending the accountability measures, created at long last by Democrats in the previous legislative session, which require voucher schools to take a state-administered test and have those test results released publicly. He told the crowd that he wanted to grade the schools, but not with “one big test.”

The first test results were released earlier this year, showing that voucher schools aren't performing any better than Milwaukee Public Schools, a finding that largely has been confirmed by University of Arkansas researchers in their longitudinal study of the program. Walker, however, failed to mention the comparable test scores during his talk, instead focusing on voucher schools' higher graduation rates. He said voucher schools were doing something “magical” to create those results.

Perhaps he is right about the magic, since there are not uniform benchmarks for a high-school diploma at these voucher schools. A wave of the magic wand and, voilà: a bunch of high-school graduates.

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