“Do you know the Governor’s budget is privatizing services at the courthouse?” the man from Buffalo County asked me. “Seniors are going to be very unhappy when they know what is happening.”
The man was talking about services now offered by people who work for us - for the county - instead being offered by a private company.
Another man voiced a similar concern. “Do you know that Hewlett Packard is going to get the contract to take care of the income maintenance jobs now done by the county?” This man not only knew about the jobs moving from public to private - he heard of the company getting the contract.
There has been a great deal of public discussion about something called privatizing.
Just what does this mean?
Most of the time we use public dollars to deliver public services by public employees for the public’s good.
When we think of public services, we think of people who serve the public: police, firefighters, social workers, snowplow drivers, road construction workers. But wait. Some of those jobs - paid for with public money - are done by private companies.
Take road construction for example; it doesn’t make sense for the state or the county to run a dirt moving business. While road maintenance is a job often done by the county, road construction or resurfacing is done by a private company - or several private companies working together. But the money is public - tax dollars. The road is something we all use.
Most everyone agrees this system makes sense. Roads need to be built with big equipment and that equipment is best bought and maintained by people in the road building business.
But other jobs done for the public’s benefit are best kept in the public sector, like police, firefighters, inspectors and game wardens. The public’s interest is best served if private profit is not part of the equation in providing public services.
Sometimes private and public co-exist; social workers work for the county or in private practice, public and private universities, or parochial and public schools.
Tucked away in the Governor’s budget are provisions that would move services now performed by the county to private companies, such as signing-up people for public programs like BadgerCare and other public safety net programs.
A woman I met in Eau Claire was nearly in tears as she told me why this was a very bad idea. “People need help and they don’t know where to turn,” she told me. “They need a coach, not a computer.”
Also in the Governor’s budget is a plan to privatize the University of Wisconsin Madison. People who work at UW Eau Claire told me they think this is a very bad idea. “We are afraid Madison will become unaffordable for average Western Wisconsin students,” the man said. “And the Governor will use this plan to make the rest of the UW campuses far inferior; starving us of resources and making it harder to attract good faculty and students.”
This week the Senate Committee on Education, on which I serve, will hold a public hearing on Senate Bill 22, a bill to dramatically expand charter schools in Wisconsin. People contacted me concerned this bill opens the door to privatizing public education in Wisconsin.
Charter schools use public dollars to educate children. They are different from parochial schools; they are a public school free of public school rules and sometimes run by private entities or sometimes for-profit companies. These schools mostly exist in large cities. Some are ‘virtual’ or on-line schools and exist only on the computer. But all use public dollars.
At the Education Committee hearing, legislators will grapple with the question of using public money to dramatically expand the number of charter schools in Wisconsin. We will consider whether charter schools are better than public schools. Quality and accountability are key concerns. In fact, leading researchers at Stanford University conclude that quality and accountability are the most pressing problems facing charter schools.
Dr. Margaret Raymond, director of the first detailed national assessment of charter schools at Stanford University concluded charter school advocates and policymakers must be willing to fulfill their side of the bargain, “which is accountability in exchange for flexibility.”
In all decisions to use public dollars by private companies for the public’s good we must assure those tax dollars are spent wisely and transparently; companies must be held accountable for delivering high quality services in the public’s best interest. This will be under debate as we learn more of the details in the Governor’s budget.