Wisconsin Education Issues

Education is an essential component of modern societies. It is self-evident that virtually everything in our current social, economic, political, and technological world is impacted by education.

Given this obvious reality, it is inexplicable to me that education – especially universal public education – is under attack in so many ways. Funding for K-12 schools, tech colleges, and universities is inadequate and being eroded by inflation. Students are being expected to pay for higher education with student loan debt. School “choice” and vouchers divert public money to private (mostly religious) schools with no gain in academic achievement. Politicians, parents, and religious zealots have turned schools into a political football. Books, history and other important topics are being banned. Divisive “culture war” politics, inane calls for “parental rights” and the opting out of curriculum topics is making schools unmanageable.

All this can only further reduce the knowledge and abilities of young people. We already rank below many other countries in educational achievement. Now teachers are quitting and fewer people are going into the profession. Clearly this will not be good for business, technological innovation, the economy, and the future well being of people of Wisconsin.

What is Wisconsin doing about these problems? The Republican controlled legislature is busy exacerbating them. The state budget is the battle field and education is the “collateral damage” in their pursuit of political power and control.

I will start with the craziest example. In June Republicans proposed Assembly Bill 308 that allows prosecution of teachers and librarians under obscenity laws. Current state law protects employees of libraries and educational institutions from prosecution “for an obscene materials violation” while engaged in doing their jobs. If this becomes law, librarians could be prosecuted because the library has a book or movie alleged to be obscene.

Does any rational person believe that school librarians promote pornography? This is an absurd notion. Clearly this bill is not addressing real problems. Its purpose is to create culture war soundbites and pander to religious zealots. Thankfully this stupidity is unlikely to survive Governor Evers’ veto.

A more significant issue is the legislature’s cutting $32 million from the UW System budget request. This is not because of a shortage of money. The state has a $7 billion surplus. Republicans are pushing a $3.5 billion tax cut which will mostly benefit the wealthy. So $32 million for the universities is a drop in the bucket.

The real reason for the cut is to end funding for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs across the UW system. Republicans openly admit this and have stated that the funding would be reinstated if it was used for “workforce development” instead of DEI. This cut would eliminate 190 staff engaged in programs to help students from a variety of backgrounds succeed in college. This includes veterans, students with disabilities, first-generation students, and under represented minority students. Republicans regard this as discrimination against white males.

This not only shows Republican opposition to equality but also their misunderstanding of the needs of business (one of their core constituencies). Many business leaders regard diversity as essential for recruiting, customer relations, economic growth, innovation and overall business success. Business owners understand that we must learn to get along with people of different backgrounds in a modern, pluralistic global economy.

Wisconsin Public Radio reported on this, “…one of the reasons employers and local economic development organizations are embracing diversity, equity and inclusion…[is to] attract and retain much needed young professionals — especially as the state’s population continues to age, threatening to worsen the labor shortage.” In the report Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon says the younger demographic “…has a belief set that is rooted in being more diverse, that is rooted in this idea that everyone has a right to feel like they belong…” For more see “Local economic development groups, Wisconsin employers embrace DEI,” June 28, 2023.

A larger issue is Republican support for school vouchers that funnel tax dollars to private (mostly religious) schools. A budget compromise between Gov. Evers and Republican legislators will increase total K-12 school funding by $1 billion. This includes a large increase for vouchers. K-8 private schools will see a $1100 increase and high schools a $2955 increase to $12,000 per student. Under the plan public schools will get a $325 per student for both budget years. This amount doesn’t even keep pace with inflation.

School funding formulas are complicated. It is hard to make comparisons of spending between private and public schools. Public schools have local taxes and federal aide which private schools do not. Private schools have tuition and may have church support. Private schools operate under different rules, have lower fixed costs and offer fewer non-academic activities. They are not comparable to public schools.

The important issue is not the dollars spent on vouchers but why vouchers exist. Private schools are a choice parents make mostly for reasons unrelated to education. Private schools have always been an option but have not been funded publicly. Funding for two educations systems divides limited resources, violates the essential principle of separation of church and state and produces no improved educational result. In fact it is harmful in many ways to students and society.

Most of the voucher schools simply can not provide as good an education. This is especially true of science instruction which requires expensive facilities and high quality teachers. Quality science instruction is a challenge for public schools. Add in religious opposition to the subject matter and most small private schools will have substandard science instruction. The same is true in offering advanced math, foreign languages, advanced classes, well stocked libraries or music programs.

Many private schools will have less diversity. An important historical function of public schools is social integration. They provided a “melting pot” of common learning and experiences that integrated children of diverse backgrounds into a national culture. Conservatives historically have opposed this, especially for integration of Black students. Today racism remains a primary reasons for the expansion of private school and voucher programs.

Another problem is voucher schools are ephemeral. Too often they close leaving children in the lurch. In contrast public schools, especially in rural areas, are the economic and cultural foundation of communities.

It has been said that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I would suggest that education is too important to be left to self-serving, short sighted politicians.