I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I sure did. As I settle in to watch the Packers and write my column for this week, here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week.
A few weeks ago, in a regrettable spurt of optimistic exuberance at the prospect of Tim Michels defeating Governor Tony Evers and ushering in an opportunity to make great strides in advancing progressive conservative policies, this column advocated that education reform should be at the top of the priority list. With Evers’ electoral victory and Wisconsin deciding on divided government for at least another two years, reforming Wisconsin’s education remains the absolute top priority, but the tactics and realistic goals must, necessarily, change.
By every meaningful measure, Wisconsin’s government education system is failing kids. There are, of course, individual success stories, but the overall performance is systemic failure at all levels. According to ACT Aspire, Forward, and ACT testing data from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin’s kids are failing to learn basic reading, writing, and math in our schools. Roughly two-thirds of Wisconsin’s kids at every grade level are not proficient in language or math. It is utterly intolerable.
Bear in mind that those testing results are statewide averages. A large number of individual districts and schools are even worse. Again, according to DPI data, there are some Wisconsin schools where not a single child is proficient in language or math. President George Bush once lamented the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is nothing soft about the bigotry that abandons kids to ignorance.
Tony Evers and the Democrats like to sell themselves as the party of education. If that is the case, then they are terrible at it. The Democrats have had a stranglehold on the state DPI and most government education districts for decades. The result has been a steady decline in performance punctuated by catastrophic failures. They have abandoned at least two generations of kids as they continue to fund failing systems.
To be frank, watching someone brag about our government education system when less than half of our kids can read at grade level makes me angry. They should be angry at such failure. It makes a lot of parents angry. It should make you angry. Republicans should be angry about it. Not only is fixing education a moral imperative, but it is also good politics. Whichever party actually fixes education and gets more than 96% of our kids reading at grade level will stay in power for decades.
I am firmly convinced that the best and fastest path to quality education for everyone is to privatize our education system. Getting the government out of the business of delivering education and unleashing the power of competition is the proven path to performance. Unfortunately, with a governor who is a wholly owned subsidiary of the state teachers union, such needed reform is unrealistic. Governor Evers has shown that there is no length to which he will not go, and no bill he will not veto, in order to protect the monied interests of the government-education-industrial complex.
In light of the political realities, the Republican leadership will not be able to make the substantial changes necessary to radically improve educational outcomes. What they will be able to do, and what they must do, is become the party of accountability. Over the last five years, state taxpayers have increased spending on education by 19% to over $16,000 per student. This was during a period when people were losing their jobs, paychecks were shrinking, and inflation was just beginning to bite.
What did taxpayers get for their generosity and willingness to invest in education? Dumber kids. Over that same five-year period, the slow decline that was happening before the pandemic accelerated into collapse after many government educators abandoned kids to their illiteracy while continuing to collect their paychecks.
Legislative Republicans must tie funding to performance and force the closure of failing schools. Speaker Robin Vos has floated the idea of passing a bill that couples universal school choice with more spending on government schools. This idea is flawed because Evers has the most powerful veto pen in the nation and could simply veto school choice while accepting the spending increase.
Instead, Republicans should freeze education spending at its already inflated level and impose performance goals for continued funding. There is no reason that taxpayers should pay for a school where less than 20% of kids can read. Funding failure is explicit support for failure. Republicans must stop supporting failure like the Democrats and become the real party of education.
If Republicans play the same old Democrat game of pretending that the system is great and only needs more money, they will fail to capture the powerful electoral support of parents. Worse, they will doom yet another generation of kids to ignorance and exploitation. Our nation will be worse for their complacency.