Educrats vs. Students: the Milwaukee Showdown

Published April 23, 2019

“Power to the education establishment!” — it could become the rallying cry for Democrats during their 2020 presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee.

“Power to local parents and taxpayers” — well, not so much.

In hawking a proposal to use federal power to give public school teachers a hefty pay raise (more than $13,000) over the next four years, U.S. senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is catering to a massive group of voters.  Apparently, Harris is trying to buy delegates.

It is a shrewd ploy.  After all, activists from two of the biggest teacher unions — the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — have made up as much as one fifth of the delegates to recent Democratic conventions.  Nothing pleases NEA-AFT panjandrums more than guaranteed raises in teacher pay at taxpayers’ expense.  The unionists could help Harris win delegates in the party primaries and then actually be some of those delegates in Milwaukee.

Shrewd political ploys often spawn rotten public policy.  In this case, Harris would insert federal bureaucrats deeply into the heart of local education policymaking, a role the Constitution does not assign to the national government.  Federalism is not a concern for those who embrace socialism or lean socialist.  However, it should be for Americans who want to preserve constitutional limits on centralized government.

Furthermore, the notion that hiking the estate tax by an unspecified amount, thereby “soaking the rich,” would pay the entire tab for this ploy is fallacious.  Less noticed is a provision whereby the feds would put up 10 percent of funding for a guaranteed base salary for all public school teachers, with states “incentivized” to put up the other 90 percent.  That smells like a big mandatory hike in state taxes.

Additionally, the Harris ruse negates the possibility of reforms enabling school districts to take productivity into account in promoting and compensating teachers, or parting ways with those who have demonstrated they are ill suited for teaching.  Instead, it is all about benefits dispensed in lockstep on a standardized scale.

In selecting their convention city, Democratic leaders surely realized Milwaukee has been the epicenter of a very different kind of education reform during the past 29 years — one that empowers parents to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.  In fact, Milwaukee’s school voucher program has grown from a few hundred pupils in 1990 to 28,000 today; most participants are minority children from low-income neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, NEA and AFT have used their political war chests to influence Democrats to slime parental choice programs and demonize vouchers.  The party chose Milwaukee just months after a vehemently anti–school choice governor, former state schools chief Tony Evers, took office vowing to freeze enrollments of voucher students in private schools, a step that would send the institutions into a death spiral.

Expect to hear a lot of convention rhetoric about the need to replace “failing” vouchers in Milwaukee and elsewhere with even more prescriptive (and expensive) government programs, such as Harris’s $315-billion teacher pay raise.

The narrative about voucher failure is false.  Civil rights leader Howard Fuller, Milwaukee’s school superintendent just before the advent of vouchers, recently wrote of long-term studies showing positive effects of voucher-aided choice on students’ reading and math achievement.  And in October, when Gov. Evers was still Wisconsin’s top educrat, the state’s education department reported Milwaukee voucher students had outscored their public school peers for the third year in a row on the ACT college admissions exam.

Other research shows that Milwaukee’s voucher students graduate high school at a higher rate than their public-school peers and commit crimes as young adults at a lower rate than contemporaries who had attended the city’s public schools.

If the Milwaukee Democratic Convention gives a platform for the proponents of top-down control of education, it should present an even greater opportunity for advocates of liberty and individual empowerment to make their case.  Federalized teacher pay versus universal educational choice — now is the time to frame the debate.

[Originally Published at American Thinker]