Public education advocates are determined to have their voices heard this election season.
The fourth annual Summer Summit hosted by the Wisconsin Public Education Network will be held Aug. 1 at Appleton North High School. The summit will focus on the challenges facing public education, with guest speakers and panelists addressing how to make it a focus in the upcoming elections.
“Since this year is a huge election year, our goal is to make public education and doing what’s right for the children in our public schools a major theme of all elections in our state, local and national (races),” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of WPEN.
The theme for this year’s summit will be “Vote Public,” an effort to steer attention toward the interests of public schools.
WPEN formed as a non-partisan public education advocacy group after the passing in 2011 of Act 10, a contentious budget bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker that strongly restricted collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers.
“Act 10 was really a turning point,” said Carol Lenz, a retired educator and active member of the Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education.
“Public education, in my opinion, is a vital part of democracy. … That’s really why I’m involved because I really believe if we lose this, we’re going to revert toward segregation.”
The Aug. 1 summit will host keynote speaker Jitu Brown of the educational advocacy group Journey for Justice Alliance of Chicago. Others joining the summit include state superintendent and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), who is the co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.
There will be 30 different breakout sessions with topics ranging from social issues to local advocacy to mental health.
This is the first time the summit is being held north of the I-94 corridor.
Appleton School Board member Jim Bowman said the summit will hopefully encourage people to push for the support of public education.
“We’re trying to educate 850,000 kids,” Bowman said. “In the Fox Cities, they’re trying to educate 36,000. Preparing a very large student body for the future is a major task.”
Bowman said a big educational challenge in Wisconsin is the inconsistent funding from the state, and that the last seven or eight years have been particularly inconsistent.
“Right now, school boards have trouble predicting how next year’s funding is going to be,” Bowman said. “With that, it’s very difficult to plan for the future.”
Marcia Engen of Appleton, a public education advocate and a retired educator who taught in both Minnesota and Wisconsin for 29 years, said she has attended the summit each year. Advocacy, she said, has become a passion for her.
“We all have this passion that we want to protect public schools in our area, but also in the nation,” Engen said.
“Everybody that volunteers to do this, it’s truly volunteer. They don’t get paid for mileage, they don’t get reimbursed for anything, they do all of the preparing, they come in — they’re doing it for the passion that they have for public education, which I believe makes it successful.”