Shorewood - Alongside local education leaders and advocates, Assemblywoman Sandy Pasch (D-Shorewood) called for action against Gov. Scott Walker's proposed 2013-15 biennial budget and voucher school expansion on Sunday in what local progressive group Grassroots North Shore dubbed an "emergency town hall budget hearing."
Pasch stood with writer and advocate Barbara Miner, retired Milwaukee Public Schools psychologist David Weingrod, anti-charter school advocate Marva Herndon, Stop Special-Needs Vouchers representative Tracy Hedman, and Whitefish Bay School Board member Cheryl Maranto - who emphasized that her views were her own and not necessarily the board's - on a panel which, by and large, ripped into the governor's budget proposal, criticizing the legitimacy of voucher and charter schools and claiming that the governor's ultimate motive is to expand the voucher program statewide.
In his Feb. 20 budget address, Walker said voucher expansion is about bringing choice to students who otherwise wouldn't have access to quality education.
"For communities where some schools fail to meet expectations, we include an expansion of the parental choice program in this budget," said Walker. "Since wealthy families have a choice because they can pay to send their children to a private school, we give low income and middle class families an opportunity to also choose a viable alternative for their sons and daughters."
The panel described "school choice" as little more than a rhetorical smokescreen for a GOP agenda aimed at expanding voucher and charter schools statewide. They argued that such an expansion, paired with the freeze on school spending in the governor's proposed 2013-15 budget, takes critical funding away from public schools and is a fundamentally skewed set of priorities.
"It's a cruel budget to many people who are barely getting by and people who support public education," said Pasch, adding of the tax breaks included in the budget, "It's a lot of money being taken off the top which could be used to expand (public) education."
Panel criticizes vouchers
Miner summarized her argument against vouchers with five main points: first and foremost, the voucher program is a way to funnel public money into private schools; vouchers are part of a nationwide Republican agenda meant to attack the public sector; voucher schools, despite receiving public money, are private and therefore unaccountable by state standards; voucher schools, if looked at as a cohesive district, would be the third largest in the state; and, finally, the program infringes on the right to a public education.
"There's a constitutional right to a free and public education," said Miner, "and we need to defend that right."
Herndon criticized charter schools for their lack of accountability to state standards and what she called their fundamental motivation: "to make money, plain and simple." She described some voucher and charter schools as "here today, gone tomorrow," opening and closing in the city in a short timeframe, disrupting the continuity of children's educations.
"Anyone off the street can open one," Herndon said. "It's not a pretty picture."
Calls for more funding
Maranto took issue with the slash in the revenue limit - which controls how much per student districts can raise via local levy and state funding - in the last biennial budget. Though Walker's proposed budget does include an increase in state aid for high-performing districts, Maranto said performance-based state aid doesn't help because a non-recurring revenue can't be built into a budget year after year.
"It's not a helpful thing for school boards," said Maranto. She said, of the cuts which have taken place since revenue limits went into effect in 1993 and Act 10 took effect in 2011, "that has come off the hides of our teachers. There's no more fat. We need more money to save the quality of our schools."
Hedman took issue with state special education vouchers, saying schools take in less disabled students, leaving the students with severe problems to underfunded public schools that have to comply with provisions of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.
Weingrod implored audience members to sign the anti-voucher petition Pasch had begun circulating and to attend a public hearing on education funding at the MPS Main Office on April 20.
"This is a window of opportunity. If we can't make a big show in Milwaukee, where this stuff is going to hit harder and faster than anywhere else in the state," said Weingrod, "where else are they going to make a show?"
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