Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker came out fighting for school vouchers Monday at a national conference of education reform advocates, where Walker said vouchers are a “moral and economic imperative.”
The likely 2016 Republican contender keynoted the conference presented by charter school champion American Federation for Children (AFC). The group is chaired by Betsy DeVos, a major Republican donor who is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. The foundation became an education reform empire supporting charter schools and the Common Core standards initiative.
The Alliance for School Choice is the “sister organization” of AFC, with a goal to expand school choice and to “revolutionize the nation’s education system.”
According to the Washington Post, DeVos and her husband have financially supported Walker throughout his political career, particularly during his recall election in 2012. DeVos said Monday her family has contributed to the political action committees (PACs) of several presidential candidates or potentials, but that they have not selected a favorite candidate yet.
U.S. News & World Report indicated that during his visit to New Hampshire in March, Bush said he is “all in” on moving to expand vouchers to allow more children access to private schools.
In his address at the AFC summit, Walker said young people in the United States need access to a good education whether that is in a public school, a charter school, a private school, a virtual school or in a homeschool environment.
“Our goal should be to provide as many quality educational choices for parents as possible,” Walker said, “because I trust parents, and I know in the end that if you give them the best choices possible, they’re going to make the choice that is best for their son or daughter…”
Walker spoke as Wisconsin lawmakers continue to work to lift the cap on the number of students in the state who can participate in its school voucher program, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In his keynote address, Walker also touted the benefits of limiting collective bargaining for public school teachers.
“Schools can hire and fire based on merit,” he said. “We can pay based on performance. That means we can put the best and the brightest in our classroom and we can keep them here.”
As the Journal Sentinel reports, Walker has received steady financial support from school voucher advocates. Scott Jensen, the former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker, is a lobbyist for AFC and one of its senior advisers.
Regarding Common Core in Walker’s budget proposals for his state, on May 8, the governor’s public relations firm sent the following statement to Breitbart News:
Governor Walker’s budget calls for local control over education, freeing up local school boards to decide how best to educate their children. This is consistent with the view he holds in his book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, where he said any decisions that can be made at the local level should, and any decisions that cannot should be made at the state level before leaving it up to the federal government because local governance is most accountable to the people it serves. The budget affirms that no school district must adopt Common Core educational standards, and bars the use of a national assessment test associated with these standards.
Walker’s government office press secretary, however, said in an email statement to Breitbart News:
The Governor’s budget prohibits the State Superintendent from requiring any school board to adopt or “give effect” to any Common Core standard. The budget also defunds the Smarter Balance assessment and prohibits the State Superintendent from adopting or approving an assessment developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, which is aligned with Common Core assessments.
Under the proposal, school districts will be able to choose an assessment approved by VARC. See language from the budget specifically addressing this below:
This bill requires the UW−Madison Value−Added Research Center (VARC) to approve at least three but no more than five alternative examinations determined to be acceptable for statistical comparison with the examination approved by the state superintendent. Beginning in the 2015−16 school year, a school may administer an alternative examination approved by VARC instead of the examination approved by the state superintendent if the school notifies the state superintendent that it intends to do so.
Wisconsin’s laws already give local school boards the power to decide their own academic standards. However, if VARC only approves tests that are aligned with the Common Core, many school districts could be motivated to adopt the controversial standards to ensure students have the best chance of performing well on the tests. In fact, Common Core supporters are hoping that is what “local control school districts” choose to do.
Critics say that should private and parochial schools that agree to accept school vouchers be required to submit to state mandates, it will be the end of truly “private” schools.
Brian Medved, a member of the Germantown, Wisconsin school board – the only district in the state to elect not to use the Common Core standards – spoke with Breitbart News as a private citizen regarding Walker’s statement.
Medved said that while he agrees with Walker’s overall sentiment, he believes the governor’s rhetoric has not matched his actions. Though he is an ardent supporter of local control of schools, Medved said the devil is in the details.
“The problems come in when ‘they’ decide what decisions should be under local, state, and federal control,” he said. “I would like to see much less state and federal intervention in education.”
Medved described that what is happening in Germantown is essentially a community that “has embraced its local decision-making and is building creative learning centers.”
“I don’t see much local control going on in many districts, when you see that we are the only district in the state that has made the proper decision to move away from Common Core and ‘standards-based’ assessments,” he explained. “There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the carrot and stick of federal and state money controls.”
“The problems I hear about in nearby local districts are that they cannot move away from Common Core mainly because of costs involved in making another change, or fear of poor testing results that would cause a bad ‘report card,’” he said. “Many superintendents are afraid of admitting the mistake of signing on to the standards in the first place, or feel they have no real choice in the matter.”
Medved said he would like to see the state education funding formula “blown up” with more money given back to the districts for true local control.
“If a district wants to spend more money on nice buildings, that should be up to them; if a community wants to pay more in taxes, that should be up to them as well,” he said. “Parents should have the ability to chose any school they would like their children to attend – this would be real local control.”
Medved added that he is wary that charter or choice schools will be “turned into the same factory model of education through the imposition of the heavy hand of government regulation.”
“I do not want to see more control of private schools,” he asserted. “There needs to be much more autonomy for schools to experiment and try something different without the fear of punishment. Parents can decide for themselves if a school is performing for their own child.”
The push for more school vouchers has been the subject of intense criticism in Indiana as well. As Breitbart News reported in January, a coalition of at least 40 groups of grassroots conservatives signed onto an education agenda that would cut regulations for schools that agree to accept school choice vouchers, as well as freedom to reject the state’s rebranded Common Core-aligned standards.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) had worked to turn his state’s school choice initiative into the most extensive in the nation, and Pence said he was hoping to see school choice extended to preschools as well, with more state funding for charter schools.
While many establishment Republicans, however, tout “school choice” programs as a sign of their “conservative” credentials, in reality, many rank and file conservatives are against the idea when the school choice is driven by vouchers that come with “strings” attached, i.e., requiring the voucher-accepting schools to conform to state regulations.
“As conservatives and activists who have been at the forefront of the education debates in Indiana for the past two years, the groups represented here reject recent media reports that the expansion of school vouchers is a major priority for grassroots conservatives,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core. “School choice needs freedom to thrive; therefore our first priority is to free voucher schools from the stifling regulations which bind them.”
Crossin’s coalition declared in its platform:
Because of these regulations, Indiana’s voucher program has one of the lowest private-school participation rates in the nation, at one-third of Indiana private schools. State lawmakers should cut all but the most basic of transparency requirements on private voucher schools, given that parents and private accreditation agencies already place higher demands on private schools than any bureaucrat can generate. Particularly egregious is the requirement that voucher-accepting schools administer the new assessment aligned to Indiana’s rebranded/Common Core-aligned standards. Even states such as Florida, a leader in national reform efforts, grant voucher-accepting schools freedom in the selection of standardized assessments, since tests direct curriculum. If true school choice is to be realized, this issue must be addressed so that parents may have genuine and competing curriculum options.
“I am in favor of putting the money and choice into the hands of the parents and students, not adding more regulation to private schools,” Wisconsin’s Medved emphasized. “I believe the best option would be for the money to go to the parents in the form of an education savings account, that can then be used at the school of their choice and the money follows the students.”
“Education is best done when you have an active, involved local community or school community making good use of their local control,” he said.