Luther Olsen has always struck me as a good guy. I have known the Ripon-area senator for about 20 years. I dealt with him extensively on school issues when he was in the state Assembly and chaired the education committee. I always found him to be a straight shooter.
That's why I believe him when he says he reached an agreement with other state leaders on public school funding and expansion of the state's private school voucher program. He says he shook on it with the governor and said pointedly, "Where I come from, your word is your bond."
Indeed it is. In Luther Olsen's world.
The problem is, the school privatization advocates and their water carriers with whom Senator Olsen has to negotiate do not seem to operate in that same world. Their track record in Wisconsin pegs them as the Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkens of the education business.
When private school vouchers were first pitched in Wisconsin 23 years ago, those doing the pitching assured anyone who would listen that their "reforms" were tailored for Milwaukee. They insisted that the rest of the state didn't need such an intervention and couldn't benefit from vouchers. They also stressed that vouchers would go only to low-income families to give them the kind of educational options that middle-class and upper-income people already had.
That was the deal. Only for Milwaukee and only for the poor. A great many wary politicians took their word for it. The deal was done.
And then it was undone. Those peddling vouchers changed their tune and argued that communities like Beloit and Green Bay and Racine also needed vouchers. They succeeded in getting the program expanded to Racine. They whined about how it was unfair to deny such a valuable state benefit to people of modest means. In no time they talked lawmakers into boosting the eligibility threshold to incomes up to three times the federal poverty level. Vouchers were not only for Milwaukee and not only for the poor anymore.
Today that revised deal is in the process of being undone. Now they want to expand the voucher program statewide, but with limits on enrollment and tighter income eligibility levels. Senator Olsen says he shook on that. The state budget bill that is to include this agreement hasn't even been passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor yet, and already it looks about as durable as the original only-for-Milwaukee/only-for-the-poor deal.
Governor Scott Walker already has gone on the record saying "every two years we're going to come back and talk about further expansion."
What's more, the national group that authors of all this education "reform" legislation isn't exactly coy about its ultimate aim, namely privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives and, by so doing, weakening or entirely eliminating local school districts and school boards.
If that becomes the final deal, Wisconsin will find itself with a system where unaccountable privately run schools can easily segregate students by academic ability and disability, economics, ethnicity, language and culture. And a whole lot of people will wonder how we got there, and will demand to know who agreed to go along for the ride.