Public education currently stands under twin towers of threat – de-funding and privatization. This is consistent with a conservative agenda to eliminate many public programs – including public education.

In Wisconsin, school districts have been under strict limits on their revenues and spending since 1993. These limits have not kept pace with the natural increases in the costs of everyday things like supplies, energy and fuel. So every year, local school board members and administrators have had to cut their budgets to comply with spending limits. Throughout these years, school boards and administrators have done an admirable job of managing these annual cuts, but taken together, reductions in programs and staff have had a significant and very negative impact on our schools and the education they can provide to children.

Unfortunately this year, these same districts have received the largest single budget cut in Wisconsin history. For example, high poverty aid was cut by 10 percent during a time when poverty in children has increased in Wisconsin. As a result, schools are cutting programs and staff. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data, the cuts in 2012 are greater than the two previous years combined. These cuts will be compounded when next year’s cuts come due.

At the same time that we, as a state, have cut our spending on public education we have increased our spending on private education. This is consistent with a conservative agenda to privatize public education. Methods of privatization include “choice,” vouchers and private charters. “Choice” may sound good, but in the end the private school is the one exercising the “choice.” Private schools select students based on academic ability (or absence of disability), ability to pay, disciplinary record, language and their own corporate interest, rather than taking all students and providing them the best quality education they can.

Destruction of public education would be a disaster for our country. There are certain public institutions – courts, legislatures, and schools – that must remain public to serve a democratic society. Through public education we are able to actively participate in a democratic society – to be informed voters, to run for office and to serve on a jury. What happens to our democracy when we have a system of education where the focus is on private rather than the public’s interest?

Julie Underwood ([email protected]) is the dean of the School of Education and a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis.