Mike Pence arrives in Madison to promote school choice

    Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)
    Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) (photo by Gage Skidmore)

    Vice President Mike Pence will arrive in Madison Tuesday at 11:05 am 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 at 12:15 pm. 

    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 Representative 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 Mike 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 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 Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who visited a Milwaukee voucher school last year 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, DC, 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.” 

    Stay tuned for more from the Examiner on Mike Pence’s visit to Madison and School Choice Week.

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.