Darling, Kooyenga, and Clarity for an Argument's Sake

By now, most folks with any concern for education issues in Wisconsin generally or Milwaukee specifically have heard of Representative Dale Kooyenga and Senator Alberta Darling's proposal. (If not, you can read their 25 page press release here, and MTEA President Bob Peterson's response, which was published in the MKE Journal Sentinel, here.)

There have been lots of posts, tweets, and op-eds written already about the topic, many of which raise important questions about the implications of Darling and Kooyenga's plan for the democratic oversight of public (and publicly funded) education in Milwaukee. I'm not terribly interested parroting what others have said or weighing in on the same issues. I'm also not going to weigh in on (or wade into) the charter school debate more generally. 

I've been reading and thinking a lot about Darling and Kooyenga's proposal over the past few weeks, trying to understand not only what, exactly, they were proposing, but the historical context in which their plan should be viewed. For example, Barbara Miner's Lessons from the Heartland, an overview of education and racial politics in Milwaukee over the last 100 or so years, notes that "charter supporters ... inserted a measure into the state budget, where controversial issues become muted because they are part of an omnibus bill." (227) Miner wasn't talking about the current proposal, of course - she was talking about the changes in the earliest years of Wisconsin's charter school experiment expanding the number of institutions authorized to approve and oversee charters (but only in Milwaukee). Sound familiar? 

The piece that seems conspicuously absent from the discussion surrounding the current proposal is a real discussion of funding. I've seen a lot of Facebook posts and comments floating around asking Milwaukee residents and MPS parents to call members of the joint finance committee to voice their concern that "this is not a budget issue." This is an odd, considering that nearly half of the 25 page press release is devoted to promoting "Free Market Zones" to "uplift" Milwaukee's most under-served residents, and that states around Wisconsin are steadily expanding their voucher programs while claiming billions in savings. Political tactics aside, this is absolutely a budget issue for those who support the proposed changes. 

Democracy, as Bob Peterson wrote, is important, as is oversight - I just don't believe that's the primary issue here. The issue is one of the Free Market economics guiding education decisions. The issue is one of "efficiency" models guiding funding decisions. This is about whether running a school as "efficiently" (read: cheaply) as possible ought to be our highest goal. Charter schools are, quite simply, asked to do the same work with less resources. And while many (opponents and advocates alike) point to the shortcomings of this approach, the inescapable truth is that charter schools have long been sold to the public on this very idea. When folks like Darling and Kooyenga proclaim the success of charter schools in Milwaukee (however tenuous their claims), they do so largely in support of this financial policy.

Given this consideration, it seems that the arguments focused on a resistance to the notion that schools (and school oversight) are a budget issue in Wisconsin miss the point. We would do better to use the opportunity to call instead for more funding for schools. We would do better to, like Will Johnson (no relation) over at Jacobin, take a critical looks at the effects on educational outcomes of the sort of "efficiency model" or "business model" approach to education. We've got to demand better, but those demands need to be clear - as do our criticisms.