It's not often that the Wall Street Journal goes to bat for a local school board candidate - and loses. But that's exactly what happened on April 1 in Milwaukee. A plethora of corporate and right-wing ideologues threw their financial and media muscle behind John Gardner, the most outspoken, pro-voucher member of the Milwaukee School Board.
Gardner received a solid trouncing, winning only 41 percent of the vote. His defeat by former high school principal Tom Balistreri ended the 5-4 domination of the school board by pro-voucher members. Balistreri is a strong supporter of public education and pledged to build unity on a divided board.
As a two-term incumbent and the only citywide member on the nine-person board, Gardner had the backing from an array of forces that would be the envy of any right-wing wannabe: the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, John Walton of Wal-Mart, free-market academic Milton Friedman, the Washington Times, Betsy Devos of Amway Corporation, Indianapolis insurance executive Pat Rooney, and Michael Joyce, former head of the conservative Bradley Foundation. Gardner's anti-teacher union, pro-privatization, and pro-voucher perspectives align him with conservative forces, but it's his location in Milwaukee, the home of the largest publicly funded private school voucher program, that has generated such significant national support.
The Wisconsin state legislature set up Milwaukee's voucher program in 1990, and the Milwaukee school board has no control over it whatsoever.
Why is the national right so interested in the composition of the Milwaukee School Board? With the June 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of voucher programs, conservatives are organizing to get similar legislation passed by as many state legislatures as possible. Colorado is the most recent example.