In light of the passage of the state budget this past June, which included $75 million additional funds for voucher and choice schools, University of Wisconsin School of Education Dean Julie Underwood addressed the increasing privatization of the American education system at a lecture Thursday.

During the lecture, held as part of American Education Week, Underwood argued voucher schools may be publicly funded, but they are not publicly accountable.

Underwood, who has been heavily involved in public education throughout her life, spoke extensively on school vouchers, which are certificates of government funding which help parents pay private school tuition for their children who would otherwise be enrolled in public school.

Underwood said vouchers are harmful for the public school system because they turn education into a “mere private good” while still using money from the public system.

“If you believe education is a public good, you are not likely to support vouchers,” Underwood said.

Former governor Tommy Thompson introduced vouchers to the state with support from pro-privatization groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Underwood said. ALEC has worked extensively to portray the public system as being inadequate, therefore promoting the concept of vouchers, she said.

“There is a perception that public schools serve everybody, and therefore they don’t serve anyone well,” Underwood said.

Underwood said the phenomena of privatization in education could be seen in policy shifts over the last 20 years.

Underwood said people give many reasons in support of the school vouchers, including the idea of a better learning environment in voucher schools. Underwood said she disagreed with the idea because data shows voucher schools only marginally outperform their public counterparts. Underwood said this shows voucher schools do not have better performance and are actually quite similar to public schools in that regard.

“You would expect [voucher schools] to knock our socks off, and they don’t,” Underwood said.

The constitution of the state of Wisconsin requires a “uniform” system of public education, according to Underwood. Thus, she said one should wonder if it is a legal violation for these voucher schools to receive public funding.

“[Voucher schools] are publicly funded, they’re not publicly accountable,” said Underwood.

Underwood said voucher schools also pose barriers that make it difficult for special education students to enroll.

Underwood said UW should work with existing groups to address the issue of privatization within public education.

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