No debate is more vigorous or worthwhile than that over the future of education in America.

What shape will the 19 Century’s little red schoolhouse take in the 21st Century? How will technology affect the delivery of services? Have societal expectations changed? Can competitive market forces improve education as they did for the automobile and the computer? These are subjects of exciting intellectual ferment — but not at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education.

It’s a toss-up as to which is the more hidebound defender of the old status quo: the militant picketers of the statewide teachers union or the teacher factory on Madison’s Bascom Hill.

But there is Julie Underwood, dean of the Ed School, conjuring a reliable hobgoblin — ALEC — instead of applying some academic rigor to the debate. 

It is the goal of the American Legislative Exchange Council "to eliminate school districts and school boards," Dean Underwood theorizes, by making "every school, public and private, independent through vouchers for all students."

ALEC, of course, shares the liberal dunking pond with the Koch Brothers, Fox News, the Bradley Foundation, WMC, Karl Rove and Scott Walker — the mere mention of which draw sustained hissing and huffing from true blue fisters.

In a jeremiad published on the school’s website, Underwood trots out the usual lefty boogeymen, inveighing against "corporate interests," and suggesting — incredibly, it would seem — that the poor would suffer — as if they aren’t already.

The dean once called giving parents greater choice in how and where their children are educated "a legislative contagion," according to The Capital Times.

"By providing all funding to parents rather than school districts, there is no need for local coordination, control or oversight," Underwood claims.

So, it is no surprise that most school boards have said "no thanks" to school vouchers and — in Madison’s case — to most charter schools.

It's like asking the white lab coats if they're in favor of disconnecting their mainframes in favor of laptops and iPads. Well, a little like it. Public school systems are not going away but any time soon but the analogy works in one way: school districts are centralized, bureaucratic and — wherever union contracts are in force — rigid and inflexible

Gov. Walker’s Act 10 public sector collective bargaining reforms have already loosened up the union stranglehold on public decision-making in many communities — even if many of them are slow to realize it. (Madison’s MTI continues to collect compulsory dues thanks to the Judge Colas ruling.)

The personal computer — and, later, smart phones and iPads — put more power directly into the hands of individuals, not institutions. But that is what the progressive enterprise is all about, isn’t it? Centralized control, whether it’s Mayor Bloomburg’s Big Gulp ban, ObamaCare, or a Soviet 5-year plan.

Why are progressives so afraid that mom and dad won’t choose their public schools?

The thoughtful Marc Eisen, usually on the Left side of things, provided the answer in  the February 27 Isthmus:

They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract — and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like [Kaleem] Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system's manifest failure. Because he hasn't, Caire is shunned.

Eisen noted that the UW School of Education sponsored a symposium called ED Talks Wisconsin to discuss "a community-wide K-12 agenda" to address the achievement gap, among other things.

Paul Soglin, endorser of the notorious Sarah Manski in the last school board race, was invited. (Manski, who was also backed by Rep. Peter Barca D-Kenosha and Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, helped freeze out a minority race charter school proponent before quitting the race two days after the primary. I tell that story here.)

Barbara Miner was invited. She’s an editor at a magazine called Rethinking Schools. In the Spring 2013 number, "middle school students analyze a classroom full of social justice issues."

But Kaleem Caire, president of the Madison Urban League, an nationally recognized educator who has awakened the most smug city in America to the minority achievement gap, was, in Eisen’s words, "conspicuously absent" from the invite list. Nor was any other education reformer invited.

A few years ago, the School of Ed ballyhooed the Madison appearance of choice opponent Diane Ravitch. 

So much for sifting and winnowing at the UW School of Education.

"Privatizing" education, Dean Underwood writes, threatens the purpose of the K-12 state-sanctioned monopoly to educate every child to "become an active citizen, capable of participating in our democratic process."

Tell that to the 50% of black students in the Madison district who don’t graduate from high school.

(A sidenote, I was driving along Observatory Drive when I espied Madison Teachers Inc.’s union boss John Matthews walking into the Big Ed building. Now, what is he doing at the School of Ed? He’s not even a teacher.)

It does appear at this writing that the Legislature will pass some form of school choice. It may be capped to 1,000 students statewide and to families within 185% of the poverty line (outside of existing programs in Milwaukee and Racine).

Democrats will vote no, with the probable exception of Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee. The party that defends the right of a mother to choose life or Kermit Gosnell does not want her to decide which school her daughter attends.

The fact is the major national players in school choice — aside from Thompson and Walker — are hardly Republican; people like Geoffrey Canada, Davis Guggenheim, Joel Klein, Howard Fuller, Bill Gates, and the late Steve Jobs are liberals in anyone’s book. (It was State Rep. Annette "Polly" Williams, D-Milwaukee, who jump-started Tommy Thompson’s original voucher program 20 years ago.)

American education needs a good goosing, unless you’re proud of ranking 17th in the world, according to a respected measure.

That won’t happen whilst the status quo control freaks like Julie Underwood and her allies in the teachers union remain in charge. You want local control, Dean Underwood? No control is more local than the kitchen table.