Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
By any objective comparative measure (ACT scores, Advanced Placement, graduation rates, etc.), Wisconsin public schools are very good. When compared to the other Wisconsin schools, our Germantown schools are exceptional. In last month's Milwaukee Magazine multi-faceted ranking of metro area school districts, Germantown was in the top 4 of 33 K-12 districts.
In many states, especially in the South, the public schools are so poor that anyone who can afford it sends their children to a private school. In Wisconsin, the schools are so good that even most children from affluent families attend public schools. It has taken Wisconsin schools years to attain their current high quality levels. However, there are trends in place to destroy what we have built.
An organized out-of-state movement to initially expand school vouchers and to ultimately privatize public schools is active and Scott Walker is one of its favorite politicians. Walker was the keynote speaker at a 2011 school privatization policy summit in Washington, sponsored by the Orwellian-named American Federation for Children. This group's short-term aim is to expand voucher schemes to force taxpayers to pay for students who attend religious and for-profit schools.
During his speech, Walker shocked his own party by saying that he wants to greatly expand vouchers in Wisconsin. This is despite the fact that multiple studies have shown voucher schools to give no better, and often poorer, results versus public schools. In return for his efforts, Walker has collected much campaign money from the privatization crowd. The aptly-named Rich DeVos, a voucher advocate, is Walker's #2 largest direct recall donor, giving him $250,000.
In addition to diverting money from public schools to fund voucher programs, we are also woefully underfunding our schools. While the biennial budget included large tax cuts for corporations, big increases in road building, and an unprecedented expansion of the school voucher program, our public school systems took a $1.6 billion dollar hit. It is believing in fairy tales to think that the state could pull $1.6 billion out of our public schools and have no effect on staffing levels and educational quality. Every school system has suffered from the budget cuts. For example, according to a May 2012 budget draft, Germantown received $3.49 million less in total revenue in 2011-12 than in the previous school year.
According to a Department of Public Education report issued in April, 73% of school districts in the state cut teaching positions from the prior year. A total of 2,312 positions were cut, including 1,446 teachers. This dramatic loss of teachers follows losses of 825 and 810 the prior two years. We can't continue to lose teachers and staff and increase class size without doing irreparable damage to the education of our children.
In order to advance his national political stature, Governor "Divide and Conquer" Walker made villains of all of our public sector workers, with the most publicized targets being our teachers. School employee morale is at a very low level. The attacks have to be affecting the number of students going into teaching. At the same time, more experienced teachers are leaving the profession in droves. According to the DPI, about 2.5 times as many teachers retired last year than in past years.
To much fanfare, one of Walker's publicly announced goals is to improve the reading level of Wisconsin students. His "Read to Lead" initiative is a noble idea. However, staffing in two areas that greatly affect reading ability have been dramatically cut. In just one year, the number of statewide school librarian positions dropped an astounding 9.6%, while the number of reading specialists fell by 4.6%. Walker actually eliminated the DPI requirement that districts even have a reading specialist. Mere slogans and press conferences will not improve our students' reading levels.
We keep hearing about all of the jobs in manufacturing that would be available if people just had the proper skills. However, high school career and technical education staffs fell by 6.0% in the past year. Similarly, the state funding of our community colleges dropped by 30%, amounting to a $71.6 million cut over two years. To provide employers a trained and productive workforce, we need more funding in these areas, not less.
Scott Walker's education policies are not working. If he was purposely trying to destroy the public school system, he could not do a better job. Voucher programs do not improve education and drain money from public schools. Demonizing our educators is not the way to maintain our schools and attract new teachers to the profession. Neither is underfunding education to the point of cutting programs, driving-out experienced teachers, and increasing class size. We need to take a drastically different approach to educating our children than the one that has been dictated by Madison politicians over the past year and a half.