Pence to talk school choice Tuesday in Wisconsin

Trump will swing by Michigan on Thursday

By: - January 28, 2020 11:59 am

Vice President Mike Pence in Saginaw, Dec. 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

It’s a busy week for the Trump/Pence ticket in the Upper Midwest, with Vice President Mike Pence set to talk Tuesday about school choice in Madison, Wis., and President Donald Trump planning to tout his record on trade in Warren on Thursday. Next week, Pence is scheduled to stump in Cumberland County, Pa.

Pence was scheduled to arrive in Madison Tuesday morning on Air Force Two and travel by motorcade to the state Capitol building, where he will deliver the keynote address at the Wisconsin School Choice Student Showcase. 

The event, part of National School Choice Week, is a celebration of voucher and charter school experiments praised by proponents as improving educational options for families, and blamed by public-school advocates for draining funding from public schools.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty released a report this week claiming that school privatization increases college graduation rates and could boost the state’s economy by $3.2 billion over the next two decades.

But critics charge that Wisconsin’s statewide voucher expansion drains resources from the public schools and reduces the quality of education overall. According to the latest DPI test score data, 17.8% of students in Wisconsin’s school choice programs scored proficient or better on statewide standardized tests, compared with 41% of public school students.

State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) and the Wisconsin Public Education Network will hold a press conference at 1:30 pm, right after Pence’s speech, in the Capitol to reintroduce Brostoff’s Public Education Reinvestment Act. The bill would reinstate and expand the former Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program, which limited class sizes in low-income schools, while phasing out voucher schools.

Brostoff says the state cannot afford to fund both a public school system and the private schools that receive taxpayer money through the expanding voucher system.

A new report from the Wisconsin Budget Project shows that even after the increases in the current state budget, Wisconsin public schools are funded below 2011 levels. 

Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin, a co-sponsor of the event with Pence, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Brostoff’s measure is “a non-serious proposal from somebody who can’t cite local facts and is looking to push the same old talking points.”

“But these are specific proposals to restore public education,” counters Heather DuBois Bourenane of Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Nothing could be more serious.”

“Meanwhile they’re putting on this event that’s so astro-turfy,” DuBois Bourenane said of the Pence event in the Capitol. “It’s the spin machine in action–that Wisconsin is gung-ho about privatization. But there’s not a great demand for the voucher expansion.”

DuBois Bourenane does not plan to protest the event with Pence. 

“The problem is, they use kids as a human buffer,” she says. “I have zero interest in protesting an event that’s mainly children.”

She recalls the voucher schools that brought students holding pro-voucher signs to stand around the public-school kids playing in a band at Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ inauguration. “This is exactly what we are fighting against — pitting these kids against each other,” she added. “The way they use and exploit children in these political campaigns is gross.”

Pence, who is a proponent of school prayer and publicly funded religious education, will be surrounded by private-school students at the Capitol pep rally, as was U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who visited both a Milwaukee voucher school and Detroit charter school in September to celebrate education “choice” and deride “government schools.”

Members of the Wisconsin Public Education Network will be steering clear of the Capitol until the press conference later in the afternoon.

DeVos spoke recently at an event for a Christian college at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., where she compared the choice to have an abortion to the choice to support slavery.  

That “choice,” is the favored buzzword of both proponents of school privatization and abortion-rights advocates leads to some mixed messages.

Abraham Lincoln, DeVos declared at the Bible museum, “contended with the ‘pro-choice’ arguments of his day. They suggested that a state’s ‘choice’ to be slave or to be free had no moral question in it.” 

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration.