Sunday, December 11, 2011

Issue #37 December 11, 2011- Recall, Media, Citizens United, Public Education vs. Private Education

Issue #37- December 11, 2011
In this issue: Recall, Media News, Get Rid of Citizens United, Public Education Attacked, School Choice and Madison Prep

Why Recall Walker (and Kleefisch, and 4 GOP Senators)?…
As the recall process continues to move forward the supporters of Governor Walker have stepped up their media blitz to discredit the movement.  Their attacks take on many forms, but all center around a few basic themes.  However, if carefully analyzed, none of their basic tenets have much validity.   

The first of these themes is that the efforts to recall Walker are a waste of hard earned taxpayer money and are a distraction to what matters most, fixing the budget.  Walker's supporters would have us believe that all the Republicans in Wisconsin have done is follow the mandate given to them by the people of Wisconsin.  This mandate called for them to fix our budget crisis by any means necessary.  They would argue that this justifies their attacks on labor and the cuts to social programs.  By going against this mandate and recalling the Governor, Lt. Governor and possibly as many as 10 senators the supporters of recalls are damaging our economy and our democracy.

Cost to taxpayers?  Really?  This coming from the party that doubled the costs of the summer recalls for GOP Senators by running "fake" Democrats.  The party that has made voter registration a quagmire of regulation and costly "reforms".   Just a couple of the arguments that invalidate the first of the anti-recall points.   

Mandate, what mandate?  Governor Walker's election is really a reflection of the decline in electoral participation that plagues America.  Gov. Walker was elected by around 1.1 million voters.  The turnout in the election was around 50% of the eligible voters, this means he got about 1/4 of the votes possible.  However, it is also interesting to note that only about 2/3 of the registered voters even cast a ballot in the 2010 race.  Participation in elections all over America are a disappointing demonstration of the disengagement of the population from the political process. 

A second theme advanced is that the recall movement is simply a front for the big labor leaders to continue to pad their pockets on the taxpayer dime.  The huge number of volunteers who are working for recalls are being duped by their leaders and the Democratic Party into mounting the recall campaigns.  The grassroots activists simply don't see the truth behind the lies they are being told.

Just read any of the comments after an article about recalls or other political news and you will hear this argument advanced.  I find this argument to be personally insulting.  Are there union members who are simply following along with the movement?  Of course, there are followers on both sides who are not politically active and who are going along with what their colleagues and leaders are saying.  However, the idea that tens of thousands of educators are mindlessly protesting and organizing simply because someone told us to is ridiculous.

Unions are democratic institutions and are run by members.  I have yet to participate in an action or see any evidence of this conspiracy by labor leaders to control their membership.  Maybe conservatives should consider that when a group is attacked and vilified they respond by fighting back.  No single group has been more of a scapegoat in Wisconsin than the public workers. We have told our leadership that we want to defend our rights.

In fact, maybe Governor Walker should thank the big labor leaders for their ability to channel worker anger into safer forms.  During the early days of the protests in February there were many calls for a general strike and other larger more confrontational actions.  In order for an action like this to occur there needs to be an organized effort to make it happen.  Clearly leadership of the national unions and even state-wide organizations didn't support this idea enough to proceed.  A general strike could have changed the entire tone of the debate and forced Walker's hand even more.  Opportunity missed for labor?  Maybe, however, it is clear that organized labor leaders chose a more political route for the initial phases of the campaign.  A venue where Walker holds a clear upper hand here in Wisconsin.     

A continuing mantra from the Governor is the idea that it is groups from outside Wisconsin who are really behind the recalls.  These out of state labor groups and other Democratic Party stooges are making Wisconsin a battleground for their attacks on the values that most Wisconsinites hold dear.  They are paying people to destroy democratic values and damage Wisconsin economically, politically and socially.    

Once again, this is an insult to the citizens of Wisconsin who are out in the cold collecting signatures.  No one who has attended any of the anti-Walker events can justify this claim.  Have we received support from out of state citizens and groups?  Yes, but Wisconsinites have also done the same for workers in Ohio, Michigan and all over the United States.  Wisconsin is a battleground, but it is a battleground chosen by conservatives, not liberals. 

When all else fails, a little fear and intimidation are always an option for conservative strategists.  Whether it is the social networking venues where the idea of destroying petitions surfaces, or the legislative process where assembling in public buildings becomes essentially illegal the message to activists is clear.  Speaking out against the Governor and his supporters can be dangerous in some way. 

From the start of the process this tactic has been employed to confuse and frighten recall activists.  The idea that petitions were being collected and then destroyed made many feel that they should sign again.  Then the conservatives claimed that citizens were being told to sign multiple times to inflate the counts.  Listen to conservative pundits around Wisconsin as they talk about the corruption and intimidation used by recall workers.  They generate fear among the uninformed and try to isolate and divide the population.

I do recognize that there are bullies on both sides.  I can't condone those who have attacked Walker supporters personally.  For example, the teachers who have made ads supporting Walker are entitled to express their opinions.  It is completely appropriate to give information about them if it sheds light on their status and challenges the validity of their statements.  However, there is no room for any other types of attacks on their character or their rights as citizens to express themselves safely in a public forum.

However, as a fairly active participant in many different forums, I find the rhetoric from the right to be disturbing.  The references to violence and the attacks based on gender, race and other human characteristics is frightening.  While many would say that I can't take a joke, some things just aren't funny.  Also, as a teacher I can tell you that the first line of defense when called out on bullying is, "I was just kidding," or "We were just playing."  The negative and hateful statements set a tone for our interactions as we try to solve the challenges that face Wisconsin. 

The hateful rhetoric can only lead to increased aggression and dangerous, hurtful actions.  The belligerent and antagonistic language divides people until there is no middle ground left to work from.  The number of incidents of physical confrontation and property damage to recall activists is increasing and (while I hope I'm wrong) we appear to be heading towards a very troubling time.  A time that begins to mirror the mid-1800's.  Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, but with the conservative leadership in Wisconsin being what it is, it's difficult to see the right wing backing down at all.     

Finally, there are always a few places where data can be manipulated to show that Walker's reforms are working and are supported.  The argument that follows states that because his efforts are being successful the idea of a recall is unjustified.  Recalls should be reserved for elected officials who have committed some egregious act or who are incompetent in some clear way. 

I think that most of us working for a recall would agree that recalls are not the best solution to a political problem.  However, the facts are clear that Gov. Walker has not been honest with us.  He has advanced an agenda that not only goes against the best interests of a majority of Wisconsin citizens, but also that undermines democracy here.  The amount of damage that Republicans have done in 2011 is frightening.  Without the recall process the process of destroying Wisconsin will accelerate and intensify.

Recall News and Volunteer Opportunities…
Because of the importance of this struggle for the future of our state, it is vital that each of us do everything that we can to support the recall effort.  No matter what you're opinion of recalls might have been, now that the process has started it is imperative that we carry it through to completion.  Failure now will set the tone for the foreseeable future for all groups in Wisconsin who don't enjoy Republican protection.  Find a way to get signatures, display signs, enter data, talk to friends/neighbors/etc. but, get involved.

When I saw this article I had to smile.  My grandparents had a home just outside of Trego and I spent many a summer running through the northern forests of Wisconsin.

We can also find ways to support fellow workers in the private sector.

Media News…
 There are more places to get news than ever before, why is it that we are so confused about what is really happening?  Could it be that the proliferation of news channels hasn't been accompanied by a corresponding growth in information released to the public? 

Back before all this political action started I was a huge sports enthusiast.  I watched lots of games, lots of sports highlight and talk shows and listened to sports on the radio.  However, as much as I loved sports I came to realize that the amount of coverage wasn't justified by the amount of information that actually existed.  Most of the coverage was about possibilities, not actual events.  In fact at times it seemed like the games were almost a backdrop to the commentary, not the basis of real analysis.  Analysts became as much of the story as the athletes and games they covered.  Of course much of the information was based on outsiders perspectives and had little basis in fact.  Emotions were inflamed and opinions were formed based on comments and any fan could express an opinion about an athlete, team or event.

Sports are not politics.  They are not as important to our functioning as a society (despite some possible claims to the contrary).  However, there are some parallels that can be drawn.  We live in a time when 24 hour news coverage gives us access to information any time of the day.  We are led to believe that we are "in the know" about events and that the analysis we are being given is accurate.  However, just like sports, we don't get an insiders view of the decision making process.  We can only see the public conversations, meetings, documents, etc.  We are at the mercy of the news outlets who tell us what they think is important.  Once again, emotions are inflamed and opinions are formed based on brief news stories that don't give a full picture of what is happening.

That is not acceptable, but not necessarily crippling to democratic institutions in normal times.  In normal times our democracy moves at a snail's pace.  People have longer amounts of time to react and respond to events.  Changes come in incremental steps and are the result of (an admittedly flawed) a process that is understood and for the most part accepted.  Contrast that with the climate in Wisconsin during 2011.  A hundred plus years of tradition, legislation and policy undone by Walker and the Republicans.  There is no time to stop and reflect about what is happening.  Action needs to be taken quickly based on the facts at hand. 

What happens when these facts are flawed or just not accurate at all?  Where do we turn for information?  How can an electorate make informed choices when their sources are not informed or are not willing to accurately inform their consumers?     

I absolutely loved this clip.  First it was Ernie and Bert, now an attack on capitalism by those evil Muppets.  Next thing you know they'll be on strike until Mr. Hooper lets them unionize. 

Restore the Constitution…
One of the most disturbing and influential political events of recent memory occurred with relatively little fanfare.  Citizens United changed the political landscape and has done a great deal to get our country into the mess it currently is in today.  Senator Sanders in on the right track here. 

Why is the Citizens United decision such a landmark ruling?  It completely changed the landscape in American politics.  Take Wisconsin for example, corporate contributions to elections have been banned since 1905.  The Citizens United ruling takes precedence over Wisconsin law and left our state with little or no regulation or way to monitor who is financing political ads.  This lead to conservative groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee to become the largest spender in the 2010 elections. 

The negative advertising and focus on tearing down over building up candidates is a trend which disrupts our democratic process.  Not only are the attack ads frequently misleading at best, but they are often extremely deceptive and inaccurate.  However, once the lies and misinformation are out in the public arena they take on a life of their own and are difficult to combat.  Not only do these ads shape public perception of candidates, they also set the tone for how we discuss politics.  It is difficult to maintain a positive and civil tone to a campaign where attack ads are prevalent. 

Public Education Attacked and Defended…
It has been a major theme in my writing that public education is a valuable part of our democracy and as such has been the subject of repeated attacks by conservatives.  The outlook for public school districts in Wisconsin is not positive in many ways.   

However, educators never give up in their efforts to preserve their rights and to protect their students and schools.  What's disturbing in this article is the reality that a district's educators in Northern Ozaukee SD can approve their union 31-1 and not be certified because of the unfair regulations imposed by Walker's legislation.

It is clear that this is a time of great uncertainty, but also one of potential and hope.  For example, we know that standardized testing is one of the main supports for the platform of destroying public education.  Mitt Romney, in a forum on Fox last week, as much as admitted that the No Child Left Behind legislation was designed to eliminate the power of teacher unions.  Here in Wisconsin they are being wielded as a club against educators.

With a bleak situation like this it is important that we never give up hope.  One positive impact of the emphasis on testing is that families and educators are given common ground to unite on in their efforts to defend public education.  Articles like this one get more attention in a highly politicized climate like our current one.

The discussion about education continues all across the country.  I worry when our Secretary of Education (formerly a CEO of a school district, I find CEO to be problematic as a title for a chief education officer) talks about radical change.  So far radical change seems to favor the conservative model of privatization and standardization of schools.

School Choice…
The other major support of conservative reforms for schools is the idea of choice for families.  Typically this means choosing a private school over a public school.  There have been private schools in the United States for our entire history.  Some of the private school systems have played instrumental roles in furthering the education of countless students.  However, it is important to note that there is (and always should be) a difference between public and private schools. 

Public schools are funded by public money.  They are overseen by public officials who are elected by the community they serve.  They are responsible to the public at large and must serve the needs of all students in their attendance area.  Private schools are not publically funded and operate under different rules.  They should still be regulated to insure that they are above board in their educational efforts, however, they may use different methods and cover material that isn't acceptable for public schools.  Religious schools are a great example of private schools that meet a need public schools can't.

So, what's the problem?  Public and private schools have co-existed for centuries here in America.  One of the biggest issues currently facing us is the efforts by conservatives to use public money to finance private schools.  Taking this money away from public schools weakens their efforts to provide services for students who desperately need them. 

Remember that public schools must (and should) accept students who live in their attendance area and may not discriminate against students with disabilities or students who may not meet other standards that private schools can impose.  These students frequently cost more to educate than a typical student.  A classroom of students with no identified learning or behavioral issues can be managed by a single teacher with minimal support for academics.  A student who has an identified disability can require additional adults to insure that they are safe and are learning.  This raises the cost for educating a student.  Add on to that cost supports like OT, PT, Speech and Language along with extra equipment and materials necessary to modify curriculum and the costs go up more.

Of course this isn't news to educators or to people familiar to the public school system.  However, these issues are discounted and ignored by supporters of school choice.  They frequently represent special interests or individual groups of students and don't want to see the larger picture.  They use statistics about cost per pupil, test scores and other data to support their claim that private is better.

The choice issue is coming home to roost here in Madison.  The supporters of Madison Prep have stepped up their media efforts to gain public support for their product.  They have followed the traditional model of attacking educator unions and saying that they are only doing this "for the children".  They have also used statistics and data in misleading ways.  Supporters even use the numbers that conservative anti-public education pundits use such as the $80,000 a year teacher salary claim. 

Supporters of Madison Prep argue that the Madison Schools are failing minority students, specifically African-American males.  Their arguments are supported by facts that show the achievement gap is very real here in Madison.  However, taking these facts and then undermining public education is counterproductive.  From the very start this movement has been disingenuous.  Their proposals have changed multiple times and in significant ways. 

One of the biggest points of contention has been the costs for labor in the proposed school.  It is here that the proposal shows its true nature.  From the start the Urban League had proposed a school where costs were heavy in management and low in labor.  Administrators were to be paid at a higher rate than MMSD administrators while teachers, custodians and support staff would work more for less.  Comments by leaders in the Madison Prep movement showed their disdain for organized labor.  The conflicts between the Urban League and MTI finally have resulted in many school board members and MMSD administration to change their thinking about the proposed school.

The more that one looks at the relationship between unions and education the more beneficial unions become.  Steven Brill, noted columnist, businessman, etc., wrote a book that started as a positive commentary on charter schools and was distinctly anti-union.  However, after several years spent studying the experiences of teachers in the schools of NYC he came to this conclusion, "The lesson is that unions…have to be enlisted in that fight because unions are the organizational link to enable school improvement to expand beyond the ability of the extraordinary people to work extraordinary hours."  Maybe our fellow citizens at the Urban League should consider what unionized educators and support staff have to offer.

In addition to the labor costs the Madison Prep proposal now includes the idea that it will be autonomous from direct oversight by the school board.  At the same time it will receive public money.  I fail to see how any responsible school board member could support giving away needed money to a school that appears to be hostile to the district's efforts to educate all students.

There is no doubt that we need to work to address the multiple needs of all our students.  Privatization of schools and conflict between educators will not do much in the way of addressing the challenges we face.  Debate is healthy, but debate can't happen when there is no accountability between participants in the discussion.

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