Our Children Are More Important Than Politics

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

One of the likely provisions of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal will be an expansion of school choice. The details are not known yet, but Walker has long been a proponent of private school choice to give parents educational options to escape failing schools.

Unfortunately, two Republican state senators are willing to stand in the doorway of school choice, in effect holding parents and children captive to failing schools. One of the senators is Senate President Mike Ellis, according to the Associated Press, is bringing “local control” into the debate over school choice expansion.

It’s especially disappointing when Republicans like Ellis, who have little to gain by defending the educational status quo except a few fleeting favorable headlines, decide to cast their lot with the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). After WEAC’s attempts to unseat so many of Ellis’ colleagues and foment unrest at the Capitol, you would think that he would be reluctant to placate them with a proposal to block the expansion of school choice.

Instead, what Ellis proposals is the expansion of the conflict, protests and demonstrations in Madison to a community near you. A battle-weary Wisconsin would see WEAC’s organized chaos writ large.

What Ellis proposes is that no expansion of private school choice could take place without a referendum within the affected school district. To get the referendum on the ballot, supporters of private school choice would have to meet the same level of signatures needed for the recall of an elected member of the legislature. (One would think Ellis would be discouraging of efforts to gather that many signatures after the experiences of the last two years.) This referendum process would somehow assure “local control.”

It’s an absurd notion. The moment such a petition effort began, partisans from both sides would beleaguer the local school district. They would be flooded by outside union ad spending and outside union organizers opposed to school choice. Where is the “local” in that chaos?

We can almost hear the chants now echoing across the state, “One, two, three, many Madisons!”

It’s not as if local control is somehow sacrosanct when it comes to education spending in Wisconsin. When nearly $10 billion of the state biennial budget is devoted to local k-12 education spending, it is not a formula for local control.

Ellis himself has supported efforts to fund two-thirds of local education spending at the state level. Ellis supported the state mandated Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) that, when it was in effect, created a required annual minimum increase in salary and benefits for teachers in local school districts to avoid arbitration, and defended the QEO when Governor Jim Doyle wanted to repeal it.

Ellis even went so far in 1999 as to propose that all school districts in Wisconsin have the same mill rate for property taxes. Then and only then could local school districts seek more from the voters, according to Ellis’ proposal. So much for local control.

We could even tease Ellis about his supposed affection for local control when he opposed a provision in the last state budget that would have ended funding for the mandated recycling programs. If you don’t remembering voting on keeping your county recycling program, you didn’t miss it.

Meanwhile, the Ellis referendum proposal does not address education at its most basic level. If the schools are failing a group of students and parents, if the little Mikeys of the world can’t read, they should be given the option of attending schools that can teach. That is local control at the fundamental level, putting the education decision in the hands of parents.

Even more obnoxious is Ellis’ contention that expansion of school choice does not belong in the state budget. How can it not be in the state budget, when nearly $10 billion of what the state spends is on local k-12 education? How the state spends that money is precisely what the budget is for. Opposition to having school choice funding in the state budget is just another attempt to isolate funding for the expansion of private school choice and kill it.

So the next time Ellis calls Green Bay Preble High School or any other school in northeastern Wisconsin, “a sewer,” perhaps he can look the parents in the eye and tell them why they should accept that sewer is the only option for their kids. Rather than apologize to the school, apologize to the parents and students, and stop barring the school house door.