by Larry Miller
The August 14 Democratic primary election in Milwaukee was a victory for public education. Who lost? Democrats who support vouchers, the Republican Party and Tea Party activists.
At the center of this election was the seat in the 11th assembly district, a race between Mandela Barnes and Jason Fields. Jason Fields has been a longtime advocate for private school vouchers and other forms of privatization of public education. His work has not gone unnoticed by Gov. Scott Walker, who appointed Fields to the Governor’s education committee on reading.
Barnes addressed the issue of vouchers head on with Fields. Barnes did an old-fashioned grassroots, dialogue-at-doorsteps campaign to win landslide support of voters. Fields, on the other hand, relied on outside support in an attempt to hold his assembly seat.
To rally that support, in stepped the American Federation for Children (AFC). The American Federation for Children is an organization with roots in Milwaukee that promotes public school privatization through “voucher programs” and charter schools. It shares an address and leadership with its 501(c)(3) partner, Wisconsin’s Alliance for School Choice (ASC).
The AFC spent over $100,000 in radio ads and glossy brochures sent to Milwaukee voters’ homes in an attempt to sway votes.
AFC is chaired by Betsy DeVos, the billionaire wife of Amway founder Richard DeVos and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She is a Tea Party advocate and ally of the Koch brothers. In recent years, she has funneled tens of millions of dollars into school privatization efforts and other right-wing initiatives.
AFC is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and is represented by former Rep. Scott Jensen on the ALEC “Education Task Force.” Jensen is the former Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker convicted in 2005 of three felonies for misuse of his office for political purposes, and banned from the state Capitol for five years. Jensen is one of the AFC’s registered lobbyists in Wisconsin.
Jensen has proposed bills to ALEC on behalf of AFC/ASC that were adopted as “model” legislation. For example, in March 2011, Jensen presented to the ALEC Education Task Force the “Education Savings Account Act,” which creates financial incentives for families to take their children out of the public school system and put them in for-profit primary and secondary schools.
This AFC strategy for the August 14 primary election was a total failure. For any Democrats who stroll to the other side, let this be some indication of what can happen in the future.
The results of this election have to be somewhat disheartening to State Sen. Lena Taylor, who endorsed many of those defeated. She is a strong voucher advocate who supported the attempt at mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools and continues to raise governance issues around Milwaukee public schools, including the possibility of creating a New Orleans-style “recovery district.” Most of public schooling in New Orleans has been turned over to private chartering companies with questionable policies and results.
We need to pay attention to who stayed silent on the interference by the American Federation for Children. Silence in the face of right wing power moves amounts to complicity.
Hopefully this election will slow down any future attempts to privatize public schools.