Wisconsin Democrats now have launched four serious attacks in this century on programs that expand parent education options. In considering the possible fate of the latest effort — Governor Tony Evers’ proposed freeze — there are lessons from the previous three.
All that’s clear at this point is that school choice will be one of the final issues addressed in budget negotiations that won’t get serious until late summer. No one will be surprised if the process extends into the fall.
Here’s how the three previous Democratic assaults played out:
1. Early in the Doyle Administration former Senator Russ Decker (D-Wausau), with the support of Milwaukee’s then-Senator Gwen Moore, loaded up the state budget with an array of stifling regulations and fiscal constraints under the false banner of “accountability.” Decker occasionally let his guard down and made it clear his real goal was to throttle Milwaukee’s program and begin the process of putting it out of operation.
When the budget got to a conference committee, Rep. John Gard (R-Peshtigo) drew a line in the sand. He and Decker had an honest working relationship. Gard told Decker there would be no GOP votes for Decker’s anti-choice plan. Decker eventually blinked.
2. The next big challenge came in 2005 when enrollment in Milwaukee’s program approached an arbitrary cap of 15,000 students established a decade earlier. As he had done with earlier measures involving choice, Governor Jim Doyle pledged to veto any legislation to either lift or remove the cap altogether. A united school choice coalition launched a statewide TV campaign. Once again, Gard stepped up to provide key support from Assembly Republicans. Several weeks into the TV campaign, Doyle’s teacher union allies told him the effort was hurting his 2006 re-elect prospects. Doyle blinked.
3. A very different scenario played out in 2009. A key leader of the once-united school choice coalition endorsed a package of Doyle proposals that reprised the Decker package of earlier years. Members of the now-splintered coalition failed to mount an effective resistance. The Doyle package of supposed “accountability” measures was enacted along with an effective freeze on meager per pupil school choice funding. In this episode the choice movement effectively blinked before the battle even began.
Evers has now staked out a position that would stifle programs proven to be successful in addressing urban and statewide education challenges. One of the great ironies of his proposed freeze is that Evers’ own Department of Public Instruction Report Cards show that Milwaukee choice and charter schools outperform traditional schools in Milwaukee Public Schools.
There would appear to be no chance that Republicans who control the legislature will accede in the early going to the governor’s plan. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) issued a clear statement of opposition immediately after the Evers plan became public.
Statements from either side at this stage will outline predictable positions. The heavy lifting in this budget process does not get going for months.
If Republicans remain united and have the votes to send Evers a budget without killer choice plans, the governor will have a choice to make. As he looks ahead to the 2020 and 2022 elections, how badly does he want to be identified as the person who threw tens of thousands of parents under the bus? On the Republican side, will Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Fitzgerald draw a line in the sand and have the votes to back it up?