My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Check it out!
The February primary is upon us. The only race with significant statewide implications is the seven-way primary for superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction. Two of the seven candidates will go on to compete in the general election on April 6.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our government schools abandoned education and inflicted true harm on children and families that will be felt for years. That harm is being disproportionally felt by those at the lower end of the economic spectrum and is dramatically increasing the education gap in several areas. The pandemic laid bare the cynical and self-serving behavior of many of those in the government school-industrial complex. This hard-learned lesson makes it even more disappointing that conservatives and Republicans once again failed to field a pro-education candidate to lead the DPI.
For years, conservatives and Republicans have ceded the DPI to the leftist government education establishment. The state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, would pick their candidate and that candidate would be placed on top of the state education system to do their bidding. The result has been a steady decline in performance accompanied by equally steady spending increases. The last time an actual conservative ran for superintendent of the DPI was in 2013, when former assemblyman Don Pridemore ran. Wisconsin’s right establishment, then at the apex of their political power after defeating the attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker, chose to stand aside and let WEAC’s puppet skate to re-election. That puppet later used his position as a platform to run for governor. One could argue that had Wisconsin’s right put up a fight in 2013, we would not be suffering under the despotism of Governor Tony Evers today.
The seven candidates running this year are all cut from a similar cloth. They all come from the government education establishment. They all advocate for more taxpayer spending even as enrollment declines. They have all spent time in the classroom and all but one of them has been in school administration. Voters can hardly be blamed for having difficulty telling them apart. They all represent points on a very limited ideological spectrum.
In light of the pandemic, there are two issues that matter more than any other because they tell us how the candidate views education and the role of government. The first issue is whether every student should be able to return to full time in-person education. The science is clear on this issue. With nominal effort to mitigate the spread of COVID19, it is safe to return to in-person education at all levels. Almost all private and some government schools have done so in Wisconsin with virtually no issues. Other states have completely returned to in-person education and the children are thriving. School staff members and students who are in a higher-risk category can make their own decisions for their safety, but there is no reason not to immediately return to full in-person instruction.
Meanwhile, the consequences of not allowing children to return to in-person education are manifest. Student achievement, mental health, socialization, and food security are all suffering by schools refusing to open their doors. Keeping schools closed is doing far more harm than good.
Any candidate who does not support the immediate opening of schools is ignoring the science. They are prioritizing the irrational fears or cynical shakedown of the staff over the health, safety, and education of the children. They are also telling voters that they think that schools exist for the benefit of the staff — not the kids.
The second issue is how the candidates stand on school choice. Their position on this issue tells the voters whether they think that taxpayers should be supporting education or just the government school establishment irrespective of whether they are actually providing an education.
During the pandemic, families with means had choices. If their school closed or was failing to provide viable virtual options, families of means could move their kids to a private school, hire tutors, home-school, or build learning pods with neighbors. They could afford the computers, internet access, and quiet learning environments to make virtual learning viable. But many families, perhaps most families, did not have these options. They were stuck with whatever their local government school provided and many of those government schools utterly abandoned those families.
If the purpose of the taxpayers funding education is to provide an education, then our money should go to schools that are actually providing an education. If taxpayers are paying for schools that remain closed, then they are not actually funding education at all. We are simply shoveling money into the pockets of government employees while the kids are discarded. School choice gives the power of educational choice to all families.
Of the seven candidates running to lead the DPI, only two of them have expressed views that even come close to the right side of either of these issues — Shandowlyon Hendricks- Williams and Deb Kerr. If either or both of them make it to the general election, let us hope that they are more forceful in advocating for school choice and the immediate opening of schools. Wisconsin’s kids deserve it.