So Disappointing...

By Katy Venskus, DFER Wisconsin State Director

Well, the budget battle royale in Wisconsin has come and gone. The tent city of protestors has packed up and moved on. Our state electeds are no longer front and center on Fox News, MSNBC, Colbert or the Daily Show. The guy blowing the vuvuzela outside Governor Walker's East Wing Capitol office is probably still there, but the tidal wave of fervor and insanity that engulfed us seems to have finally receded.

And for all my bright shiny optimism early in this legislative session, some of which persisted well into the spring, I am disappointed with the outcome. There have been some good public policy changes, but on the whole the political losses and missed opportunities far outweigh the gains.

Good News First...

We found middle ground on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program...more or less. The program will remain means tested, but more working class families will be eligible. The private schools that participate will continue to administer the state assessment to choice students so an accurate picture of student performance is available in all publicly funded schools. Unfortunately, many solid choice schools are still being slowly strangled by the discrepancy in funding between kids in the public schools and kids enrolled in choice and charter schools, and we have still done little to get lousy schools out of the education pipeline in Milwaukee once and for all.

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On the whole the political losses and missed opportunities far outweigh the gains. The worst part, in my opinion, is the fall of bipartisanship on education and the rise of the political scapegoat. Both sides masterfully created new "boogie-men" in the education debate and a whole new set of targets for finger-pointing.

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Wisconsin could finally have a charter law to speak of...it's certainly not groundbreaking but it's a start. It allows for the possibility of independent charters to be created statewide. It forces the Department of Public Instruction to create an alternative licensing process for charter school teachers to promote a diversity of competent professionals in charter classrooms. It finally wrestles control of long vacant Milwaukee Public School buildings out of the grabby hands of the MPS Board and gives the City of Milwaukee the ability to sell or lease buildings to choice and charter schools that are ready and able to expand. Some of these changes may finally put Milwaukee on the map, so-to speak, when it comes to attracting much needed quality school operators.

Now the Bad...

Drastic, and I mean really drastic (not political buzz-word drastic), cuts to public education will change the day-to-day reality of every school-aged child in Wisconsin next year. Necessary or not, funding cuts of this size will make it difficult for good schools to continue to perform at the same level and it may cause failing schools to collapse entirely. It certainly will make it difficult for them to get better.

The worst part, in my opinion, is the fall of bipartisanship on education and the rise of the political scapegoat. With a few notable exceptions, reform minded Democrats jumped political ship in favor of complete and total solidarity with a teachers' union that could accurately claim it was under attack. The GOP waived the reform flag fast and furious when public support waned for their collective bargaining changes, but did little to actually improve school quality. 

Both sides masterfully created new "boogie-men" in the education debate and a whole new set of targets for finger-pointing. As we all know, when everybody has someone else to blame for failure it makes success a lot less likely.

Katy is a Wisconsin native who came to DFER in January 2009, bringing with her 10 years of public policy and political experience. Katy has managed several issue and political campaigns in the City of Milwaukee and statewide. She became interested in the education reform movement after leading the Democratic effort to lift the enrollment cap on Milwaukee's groundbreaking Milwaukee Parental Choice program. Read more about Katy here.