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David Moscinski: Voucher school 'meddling' is a threat

6:12 PM, May 23, 2013  |  Comments

I like to tinker. I learned how from my father, who was exceptionally good at it. Sometimes, Dad's tinkering produced a positive result, like the garden tractor he once built from scavenged parts. At other times, his results weren't so positive. He managed to cut off the top of his big toe by tinkering with a power mower, which to my limited knowledge seemed to be running fine, without first bothering to shut it off.

By nature, I think we all like to tinker to some degree. Even though things may be running smoothly, we like to see if maybe we can make improvements by tinkering with them just a little.

The dictionary definition of "tinker" acknowledges the dichotomy inherent in tinkering. Like my dad, who was a person who enjoyed experimenting with and repairing machine parts, the word "tinker" is also used to describe a "clumsy repairer or worker; a meddler," which, now that I think of it, also fit my dad and his run-in with the mower.

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To me, the joy of experimentation makes "tinkering" a positive word, except when it's done to the extreme and crosses over into meddling. Tinkering is an attempt to improve things in small, incremental steps. Sometimes, tinkering works; sometimes, it doesn't. Some of us are good at it; some of us aren't. I think most of us are a combination.

Why all this attention to tinkering? Let me explain. For a number of years, I've had the honor of being employed in some of the best public school districts in Wisconsin. As public schools, they're government entities with locally elected boards of education. Their funding has come from a combination of local, state and federal sources, but as publicly elected officials, the board members are responsible to the taxpayers who voted them into office.

During my years as an administrator in public education, I've been held accountable to tinkerers at all levels - local, state and federal. It has been my experience that the best and most successful tinkerers have been local boards of education.

Local school boards are the best at taking the incremental steps needed to continually improve the education they've been elected to oversee. Local school boards are the upside of tinkering. They're closest to the community, understand its needs, set high expectations for students and are accountable to those who elected them.

There's a movement afoot, however, that's the downside of tinkering, gone over into meddling. It's a movement, which if successful, could lead to the elimination of publicly elected local boards of education. In this movement, the functions of school boards would be transferred to executives of privately managed corporations responsible not to taxpayers - although taxes would still be paid - but rather to the shareholders of the company. The education provided would be for-profit, using public tax dollars as the source of profit.

Lost in this transfer of educational responsibility would be the need for local boards of education. Public accountability would be sacrificed for corporate profitability. Those who pay the taxes would have little to no say in how those dollars are spent.

The first step in this movement occurred 20 years ago, when publicly funded vouchers were provided to private school parents in the Milwaukee school district. Two years ago, private school vouchers were expanded to parents in the Racine school district.

The next step in meddling through the voucher program has been to include its expansion to more school districts, not as a bill to be debated by the state Legislature, but rather as a provision of the 2013-15 state budget. There's already talk of the ultimate expansion of publicly funded vouchers statewide to include parents of private-school students in any public school in Wisconsin.

The final step in the transfer of educational responsibility from public to private, thereby eliminating the need for elected boards of education, would be to provide tax-based vouchers to parents of students, no matter where the student attends school.

Control of schools at the local level would succumb to control at the corporate level. Gone would be the notion that local community members who pay the taxes should have pride in and responsibility for their schools. This includes the 80 percent of community residents who have no children in school.

Once the tinkerer-turned-meddler gets a foot in the door, however, it's hard to know what will happen. That's a lesson I learned years ago from my dad and the lawnmower.

- David Moscinski is an Appleton resident and a Post-Crescent Community Columnist. He can be reached at pcletters@postcrescent.com

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