Voucher school programs: Marquette Law School opens door to vigorous debate on subject

MILWAUKEE -- She is one of the talked about cabinet appointments in President-elect Donald Trump's administration. Betsy Devos is a billionaire businesswoman, philanthropist and supporter of school vouchers. The latter fact is drawing scrutiny from some in Wisconsin.

Betsy Devos

Marquette University's Law School welcomed Julie Underwood, a long-time dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education and critic of voucher school programs. She was joined by Scott Jensen, the former Chief of Staff of Gov. Tommy Thompson and more recently a colleague of the newly appointed Betsy Devos.

The advertised voucher "discussion" at times was more like a debate between opposing views of Underwood and Jensen.

"Unfortunately what I see all too often happen in this town is adults defending failure," Jensen said.

"I don't think the causation of school improvement, I don't think that you can lay that at the feet of," Underwood said.

Each played a role during the inception of voucher schools in Wisconsin 25 years ago. Now, with a new leadership on the way, Jensen and like minds are apprehensive.

"I think lots of educators believe that it's an indication of a triumph of ideology over evidence," Underwood said.

Devos does not have a degree in education nor extended experience with public schools -- and was the chair of a group "promoting school choice and voucher programs."

"Well, like the rest of the Trump Administration, she is not from the establishment; not a former principal. She's not from the educational establishment. She is someone who has worked with schools to improve them but she is an outsider," Jensen said.

Admittedly, Jensen said, "The president's proposal is pretty vague."

Other than pledging $20 billion to education, there is a lot more to hash out. That is exactly why advocates of public schools worry.

"And a decline for students who really need help like in special education and English language learning," Underwood said.

Jensen is also a member of the American Federation for Children. He was candid in his belief -- charter, choice voucher schools, however you label them -- are here to stay -- certainly in Wisconsin.