EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP AND POLICY ANALYSIS
Mead travels across Wisconsin to discuss,
‘Public Schools and Privatization: What’s at Stake?’
Julie Mead doesn’t mince words when addressing the expansion of K–12 voucher school options across Wisconsin in recent years.
“My stance is clear: I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to justify the large shift in pushing the privatization of education,” says Mead, a professor with UW–Madison’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.
Mead realizes many don’t agree with her, and she says she’s fine with that.
“What I’m not OK with is changes being implemented without allowing for a robust debate on an important issue that will affect students and our state for generations to come,” says Mead.
Mead has spent two decades on campus researching and writing in education journals, law reviews and books about legal issues related to special education and various forms of school choice, including vouchers.
But in the past three years, she has made a concerted effort to make her voice heard in more public ways. During that time, she has been invited to take part in panel discussions and deliver more than 20 talks to a range of groups and organizations across the state – from Ashland in the northern tip of Wisconsin, to Kenosha in the southeast corner, and many points in between. She has also spoken in Indiana and Texas about the topic.
Her presentation over the years has evolved and is now titled, “Public Schools and Privatization: What’s at Stake?”
Public schools, Mead argues, serve a public purpose in that all benefit from an educated citizenry, which is essential to a healthy democracy. By investing together, Mead says, public schools can serve all while being held accountable by the laws and policies enacted by voters. Mead adds that there is good research indicating public schools out-perform their private counterparts.
Conversely, most federal and state laws that govern public education do not apply to private schools – even those that receive state aid via vouchers. Voucher schools are private schools, under private control. Vouchers programs are designed to give parents who may be unhappy with public schools — but who cannot afford to send their children to private schools — the financial support to do so.
Vouchers are nothing new in Wisconsin. In 1990, the state implemented the first voucher program in the nation, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Wisconsin lawmakers expanded the Parental Choice program to Racine in 2011, and the program went state-wide with the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program in 2013. The state’s fourth voucher program, for students with special needs, was enacted in 2015. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in October how Wisconsin is expected to spend almost $245 million on private school vouchers for the 2016-17 school year – an increase of nearly $15 million from a year ago.
“We seem to have trouble funding one (public) school system, and now we’re trying to fund two,” says Mead. “There is a general angst and some real anger across the state. In many of these towns, the school system is often the heart and soul of the community, and they are feeling as though that’s under attack and they are asking why these changes are being made.”
Over time, the crowds turning out to listen to Mead are growing. On a Tuesday night in September, a free public talk by Mead drew 174 people to the Appleton Public Library.
Mead says she is not against change and stresses that educators and policymakers must continue looking for new and innovative ways to improve public education.
“But if we are going to redefine the ‘public’ in public education, we need to do so mindfully after a full debate on what is at stake and what justifies a change,” says Mead.