Neoliberal Education Reform Is Killing Public Schools — and It’s on the Ballot Nationwide

New research finds that market-style education reforms, like those pioneered in Wisconsin decades ago, have devastating consequences for students. This election, Wisconsin and the rest of the nation must choose whether to plow ahead or reverse course.

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels leaves a campaign rally on October 26, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Wisconsin’s Democratic governor Tony Evers is neck and neck with his challenger, Trump-endorsed Tim Michels, whose campaign has lauded abortion bans, election denialism, and a beefed up carceralpolice state. Robert Asen, who studies political discourse at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told Jacobin that because education has gotten relatively less airtime, it is “a bit of a stealth issue analogous to [labor law in] Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign,” which didn’t prepare voters for Walker’s vicious attacks on workers. But make no mistake: this election will determine the existential future of K-12 schooling in the state.

Following the now-familiar Chris Rufo playbook, Michels plans to sign a restrictive “parents’ rights” bill and move up the timeline on a universal school choice plan that would destroy what’s left of Wisconsin’s once-great public schools. Formerly the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Evers has pledged to increase school funding and prioritize the public system. In reality, though, even if Evers prevails he’ll at best continue to be “the man of a thousand vetoes,” given that Republican opposition will prevent him from pursuing his agenda. So as Marquette University senior fellow and veteran education reporter Alan Borsuk put it when speaking to Jacobin, this governor’s race amounts to a choice between treading water and veering hard right.

In many ways, Wisconsin blazed a trail for the rest of the country with market-style reforms that increase competition by weakening teachers’ unions and privatizing schools. Decades later, researchers have mapped the devastating impact of these reforms on Wisconsin students. So, as voters across the United States face grave education questions up and down the ballot, it makes sense to look back at what’s happened in the Badger State.

Scott Walker’s Attack on Public Workers

During the Great Recession, Wisconsin’s then governor Scott Walker responded to a budget deficit by cutting state education funding 8 percent and lowering caps on how much shared revenue (local property tax money plus state aid) schools can claim. These decisions followed a series of policy shifts that had lowered Wisconsonites’ tax burden, making school budgets tighter and more vulnerable to state funding reductions.

To offset his cuts, Walker gave districts “flexibility” to slash spending on employee benefits and retirement. His signature Act 10 eliminated public sector unions’ capacity to automatically collect dues, restricted collective bargaining to wages capped at inflation, and required annual union recertification and contract renegotiation. Public sector union membership plummeted from 50 percent in 2011 to 22 percent in 2016, largely driven by shrinking teachers’ unions.

As teachers lost the ability to negotiate for favorable working conditions like smaller class sizes, their ranks were literally decimated: more than 10 percent fled the profession in the year following Act 10’s passage. Borsuk told Jacobin that teacher preparation programs saw roughly a one-third enrollment drop. Act 10, which inspired similar anti-worker bills elsewhere, promoted volatility and inequality by increasing market-style competition in the labor market. Better-resourced districts poached effective teachers from struggling ones, leaving high poverty and rural schools with lasting scars.

In 2017, just before the US Supreme Court took the dues aspect of Act 10 national — discarding forty years of precedent with its Janus ruling — research by E. Jason Baron demonstrated that the law had worsened learning outcomes for Wisconsin students. Because existing teacher contracts were allowed to expire in Act 10’s wake, the law’s impacts unfolded along different timelines across the state. This allowed Baron to isolate its effects, showing a clear drop in standardized test scores.

This drop can be explained in a variety of ways. Teacher turnover, understaffing, and reduced teacher morale and experience levels (Act 10 made it easier for districts to stop weighing seniority) have all been shown to harm students. The fact that test score dips were greatest for the most vulnerable kids makes sense, because districts in wealthier areas were often able to insulate themselves against teacher pay cuts by using ballot measures to increase taxes. It’s worth noting here that standardized tests are not great measures of student achievement. Still, it’s logical to think of systematic score reductions like these as a sign of distress.

Baron’s research fits into a larger trend of data showing that unionization is good for teacher quality and student outcomes — because teachers’ employment conditions are children’s learning conditions.

A Bold Experiment in School Privatization

In 1991, Milwaukee opened the nation’s oldest private school voucher program. It started small but grew steadily, particularly after the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the inclusion of church schools — the first high court in the United States to find taxpayer funding of religious schools constitutional. In 1997, Wisconsin introduced open enrollment, whereby parents can select a public school outside their home district. Like vouchers and other market-style reforms, open enrollment increases inequality by enabling better-off districts to peel more advantaged students and their education dollars away from higher-needs districts.

Wisconsin vouchers picked up steam in the early aughts, buoyed by phenomenal amounts of money through organizations like the Betsy DeVos–funded American Federation of Children and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation (which, like the Koch network, pursues a national strategy to overtake state governments and advance free-market fundamentalism). Scott Walker expanded vouchers in Milwaukee and introduced a new program in Racine and another statewide, with enrollment caps set to increase yearly and come off altogether in 2026. Michels wants to move that up to 2023 and allow wealthy families to claim subsidies, arguing that “there’s no excuse for slow-walking the empowerment of parents.”

Today, nearly 5 percent of Wisconsin students attend private schools on the public dime — the third-highest share in the nation. Most of the families who use vouchers aren’t pulling their kids out of the public system, but are simply extracting payment for a prior commitment to private schools. For the past five years, Wisconsin has diverted more than $200 million annually in public money to voucher schools, most of them religious.

Borsuk told Jacobin that between open enrollment and private alternatives, only about 53 percent of Milwaukee students who receive publicly funded education actually attend Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), contributing to MPS’s growing budget deficit and high concentration of needy students. MPS’s struggles have been used to justify a Republican plot to, in Borsuk’s words, “blow up the district,” breaking it into parts and setting the stage for its ultimate death. Tony Evers has thus far blocked that plan.

As voucher programs spread across the United States, pushed by breathtakingly well-funded pro-privatization networks, Milwaukee was held up as an example of vouchers’ ability to improve educational attainment for disadvantaged students. But the program’s initially encouraging (at least, given certain statistical treatments) results haven’t held up, while the proof that vouchers cause damage has continued to accumulate.

Josh Cowen is an education policy expert who has spent nearly two decades studying the impact of vouchers, including as part of the Milwaukee program’s official evaluation. At first Cowen was, in his own words, “cautiously optimistic” that vouchers could help disadvantaged students. But in July of this year, Cowen wrote in a widely circulated op-ed:

In 2022 the evidence is just too stark to justify the use of public money to fund private tuition. . . . Vouchers promise low-income families solutions to academic inequality, but what they deliver is often little more than religious indoctrination to go alongside academic outcomes that are worse than before.

Cowen told Jacobin that since 2016, evaluations in Washington, DC, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio have found “catastrophic academic results” for voucher programs like Milwaukee’s. He says test score data show that these programs, which now exist in fourteen states and are a cornerstone of right-wing political platforms, cause learning loss on a scale only comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Katrina. This loss can be attributed to a range of factors, including that voucher schools aren’t subject to the same oversight and requirements (e.g. teacher certification) as public schools, and voucher students don’t have the same rights as their public school counterparts. For example, 96 percent of states with voucher programs do not preserve disability protections for children claiming tuition assistance.

Consumer “Freedom” vs. The Collective Good

Robert Asen is the author of the book School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy: How Market-Based Education Reform Fails Our Communities, which uses Wisconsin as a case study. Asen traces the evolution of discourse about public schools from John Dewey’s emphasis on schooling as a means of embodying democracy, to the neoliberal vision of schooling to boost “human capital,” to the DeVos–style belief that schooling is a private consumer good.

The neoliberal education reform era, inaugurated with Ronald Reagan’s “A Nation At Risk” report and lasting through Obama’s presidency, was characterized by an obsession with standardized testing, purportedly to measure how well schools were preparing kids to compete in the global economy. For decades, poor test results have been used to undermine teachers and their unions, close public schools, and boost private (frequently for-profit) alternatives. But as test scores demonstrated the injuries wrought by neoliberal reforms like Act 10 and school vouchers, privatizers on the Right replaced the language of data and accountability with a discourse of individual liberty and parents’ rights. It was never really about helping students succeed. And it’s not really about helping parents, either. It’s about undoing democracy to liberate the wealthiest few from any checks on their plutocratic rule.

Asen explained to Jacobin that the implementation of school vouchers in Wisconsin was “profoundly antidemocratic.” Statewide voucher expansion under Walker “happened at the last minute in the middle of the night, against the preferences of most Wisconsinites, who overwhelmingly support their public schools.” And across the United States, school privatization in the form of charters, vouchers, and neo-vouchers has been rammed through by state legislatures working in concert with funders and lobbyists who spend vast sums to realize their fundamentally unpopular goal. The outcomes of school privatization are profoundly antidemocratic as well, stripping resources from democratically governed school districts — some of the few remaining places, along with labor unions, where we can exercise real people power.

School choice furthers a fracturing of society along racial, religious, and ideological lines, enabling parents to avoid sending their children to schools with kids who don’t look like them, or with teachers who cover information that they disagree with. While privatizers continue to cloak certain arguments in the language of racial justice, school privatization has largely remained true to the segregationist intent of its earliest proponents. And as society grows more divided, it becomes harder for all of us to recognize the shared nature of the dire problems we face. Still, there are glimmers of solidarity and hope in Wisconsin.

Tax cuts, Act 10, and school vouchers wrought devastating harm on two different types of resource-starved Wisconsin school communities: rural white districts, and majority-minority urban districts like MPS. Indeed, rural schools and inner-city schools face many of the same crises nationwide, although divisive and racist political messaging works hard to convince these groups they have nothing in common. But in 2019, a diverse array of students, parents, and teachers marched sixty miles from the rural village of Palmyra to Madison to protest the school funding cuts that hurt urban and rural students alike.

And for years, communities across the state — including exceptionally high-poverty Milwaukee — have gone to referendum to increase taxes in order to meet schools’ basic capital and operational needs. This year, 166 ballot measures seek to raise the restrictive shared revenue caps to fund things like teacher pay and school infrastructure. While a Michels victory will no doubt be heralded as evidence that Wisconsinites support privatization, these referenda tell a story of communities eager to invest in the public system. For them, empowering parents is a matter of funding the collective good.