Over the past 30 years, our political leaders have bemoaned our crumbling education system. From "A Nation at Risk" to recent International comparisons, we hear the constant drum beat that our education system isn't up to snuff. We need to do better. We need higher standards, more tests, and punishments for failing schools. Our political leaders state that we need to recruit the best teachers and compensate them well. But, of course, we need to do it without money. We can't afford it.
We can afford tax breaks for the wealthiest, corporate loopholes and incentives and "open for business" signs at the Wisconsin border, but we can't afford public services, including well-funded schools.
Over most of the past 20 years, public school teacher compensation in Wisconsin has been constrained by the Qualified Economic Offer, a law enacted to lower property taxes. Wisconsin teachers have seen their compensation slip from 15th in the nation to 23rd, the lowest ranking in 50 years. However, state leaders still say, "We can't afford it." How low does it have to go?
The controversy in Wisconsin is about money, but it isn't about fixing the budget deficit. This is about breaking the back of labor unions. This is about vilifying and silencing public workers. This is about selling Wisconsin.
In a recent Fox Business special alert, Follow the Money: Revolt in Madison, the host states, "Madison, Wisconsin has become a living, breathing example of the huge split in this country between the sensible ones who see the need to reign in spending and the entitled mostly unionized ones who won't sacrifice any of their cushy benefits and high salaries and it's turning ugly..."
You know, the sensible ones that think tax cuts for the wealthy do not add to the deficit versus the entitled folks that negotiated cushy packages that let them drive around in used minivans.
Fox Business' guest, Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, states, "I think these teacher unions and others are showing what they are really all about," as he explains why his organization bused in Tea Party protesters from around the country to Madison two Saturdays ago in support of Walker's budget fix (NOTE: For those keeping score -- Pro-union protesters: 68,000+ Tea Partiers: 2,000).
Ah, yes. The union thugs, led by a middle school teacher from Wisconsin Rapids, are really showing their true colors by singing folk songs and chanting "Thank You" to firefighters and snowplow drivers. At the time this "news" show was broadcast, the ugliness of the protests had led to nine police citations -- less than what is given at a University of Wisconsin home football game.
Let there be no question about this. Walker's power play in Wisconsin is about demonizing public employees for the benefit of a "corporation first" ideology.
Tim Phillips' Americans for Prosperity was founded and is heavily funded by David and Charles Koch, the owners of Koch Industries. The wealth of the Koch brothers is exceeded in the U.S. only by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Their funding of campaigns, political action committees, and libertarian think tanks have left an insidious mark on U.S. politics that distinctly benefit their personal and corporate interests.
The fingers of the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity can be found throughout the controversy in Wisconsin. In addition to organizing the small Tea Party counter-protest in Madison, Americans for Prosperity has launched a "Stand with Walker" website and, with additional support from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce business association, is running more than $400,000 in radio and TV ads attacking public workers and their "lavish" benefits. The Koch brothers were the second largest contributors to Governor Walker's campaign ($43,000) and an additional $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association directly benefited Walker. Although Governor Walker has been too busy to speak with Democratic legislators and union leaders, he easily found time to speak with a blogger pretending to be David Koch.
David and Charles Koch finance groups that rail against taxes for the wealthy and corporate regulations. They promote an agenda that calls for the privatization of the public sector. In Walker, they have found an ideological kindred spirit and will spare no expense in the fight for corporate rights.
The endgame, of course, is all about money. Vilifying public workers feeds the natural tendency of the public's need for an enemy. It breeds distrust and gives the perception of an incompetent government. It turns one middle class worker against another, while justifying the privatization of government functions.
Thirty years ago, as a vice presidential Candidate on the Libertarian ticket, David Koch, "called for the abolition not just of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies and welfare but also of the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and public schools -- in other words, any government enterprise that would either inhibit his business profits or increase his taxes." As Milwaukee County Executive, Walker was in the same mold. He attempted to privatize courthouse security, General Mitchel International Airport and county park maintenance. In his budget repair bill, Walker proposes to do the same for public utilities. The bill will give him the authority to either sell state-owned power plants or enter into operations contracts without using a competitive bidding process.
Is education next?
David Koch ran on a platform of eliminating public schools. The Koch-brother-funded CATO Institute has been calling for the privatization of education for at least a decade. The budget repair bill hits teachers and their unions hard. In addition, Walker's 2011-2013 budget includes nearly $1 billion in cuts to K-12 schools, continuing the budget squeeze started 20 years ago. These cuts, along with the vilification of teachers unions and increasing calls for education reform, makes education an easy target. The K-12 education market in Wisconsin has a value of at least $10 billion, making it an attractive target.
The mechanism for privatization of education in Wisconsin already exists. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in the '90s as a voucher program to subsidize the costs of private schools for low-income children in Milwaukee. Early evaluations of the program showed inconclusive results, so Republican legislators simply removed the evaluation requirement, leading to rampant financial abuses. In 2006, a compromise between a Democratic governor and a Republican-led legislature, led to the addition of evaluation measures.
Evaluations of the MPCP voucher program have shown that there is very little difference in achievement scores between students receiving vouchers and comparable students in public schools. Proponents of school choice note that voucher tuition is cheaper than public school costs. However, it is important to note that students identified with special education needs are underrepresented in voucher schools, driving up the costs in public schools.
Expect to see a dramatic and unregulated expansion of this voucher program in Wisconsin over the next few years.