Sunday, January 29, 2012

Issue #45 January 29, 2012- Recall, NCLB Waiver, The Free Press? and More

What This Is…
Issue #45- January 29, 2012
In this issue: Recall Information, NCLB Waiver, Attacking Public Education, Walkergate, State of the …, A Free Press, Unions and Mining News

Recall Information…
We have seen many dramatic events in Wisconsin over the past year.  However, we are also reminded of the fact that politics in the United States is not always exciting or even engaging.  The last two months were filled with frantic activity as volunteers worked to collect signatures.  Now we enter a period of waiting while legal and political maneuvering takes place.  While it may not be an "exciting" time, this is a time to stay alert so that we don't lose our voice or our momentum. 

Republicans asked for and received an extra 30 days to look over the petitions and verify signatures.  On one hand it seems like a waste of time and resources.  With such a large number of signatures there would have to be such widespread fraudulent activity that it seems incredibly unlikely we will see the recalls overturned.  The Republicans would like to believe that this will be the case, and will work to undermine public trust in the process.  However, it really is more of a delaying tactic designed to allow for more fund raising and more advertising time.

While we may be confident in the validity of our petitioning efforts we can't ignore the potential for political wrangling and deceitful actions on the part of the GOP as they work to defend their candidates.  They will take every opportunity to discredit the process and will trumpet any extreme examples of problematic petitions they find.  They have done this since the beginning of the resistance to the Walker administration and there is no reason to see them abandoning this strategy.  We must be ready to defend our efforts and emphasize the fact that a vast majority of the signatures are valid and were collected in a proper manner. 

The fundraising efforts in support of Governor Walker have been impressive.  At the same time these efforts demonstrate a reason why he should be recalled.  The fact that he is getting such large donations from outside Wisconsin is problematic for many of us.    

The conservative argument that it is big union money that supports the recall effort is a hollow one.  While it is true that unions have played a large role in the efforts to organize and finance opposition to Walker's agenda I am constantly reminded of a simple reality.  Union money comes from union members.  Unions collect dues from many individuals and those individuals are able to have input into how the money is spent.  This is quite different from a single donator giving a large sum to a campaign.  It is a collective action by a group of like minded individuals, democracy in action.  We can't allow the public to forget that the big union money comes from their friends, family and neighbors.

NCLB Waivers…
Public education has suffered under the yoke of No Child Left Behind legislation which has hamstrung our efforts to educate children while opening the door to the destruction of the public school system as we know it.  Now we see a light at the end of the tunnel as President Obama's administration offers opportunities for states to apply for waivers to the onerous requirements placed on us by NCLB.  However, many of us are wondering, is it the end of the tunnel, or is it a freight train coming our way?

The general consensus is that getting out from the provisions of NCLB is a positive thing for education in general.  If the MacIver Institute says so, it must be TRUE.

We certainly can't continue with NCLB and the eventual labeling of all schools in our nation as "failing". 

However, a close read of these links shows that the change from NCLB to "Race to the Top" may not represent a  huge switch in philosophy or tactics.  The language that promotes testing and evaluation of education is still in place.  Many of the issues that educators have been concerned about are not addressed in meaningful ways.  The Wisconsin waiver application represents a change in a positive direction, but not a real shift in what has been happening for the last few decades. 

I have several concerns about the way this waiver application is being approached here in Wisconsin.  First, the amount of input from citizens and educators is limited in scope.  It seems that most of the work on developing any new systems will be done at a higher, policymaking level.  While this may include some of the ranking educators, we can't forget that WEAC and other statewide organizations have struggled to protect public education in Wisconsin.  WEAC has been under fire from some educators for their lack of leadership in areas like teacher evaluations.  As this is a key element in the NCLB waiver process, leaving the representation of educators in the hands of a few representatives may not have positive results for many of us.

Not only are most educators underrepresented, but families who have a huge stake in the state's education system are also potentially excluded to some degree by the process of developing the waiver.  Ask around your neighborhood and see how many parents know that DPI is developing a NCLB waiver application. 

This waiver  has the potential to have a significant impact on the education system in Wisconsin.  It will change some of the content taught in schools, alter some graduation requirements and implement new testing mandates.  It will also create a ranking system for schools and educators which will be used to distribute resources and to discipline schools that don't meet established goals. 
Of major concern is the fact that in applying for waivers, states create their own version of testing students, evaluating schools and assessing teachers.  Here in Wisconsin where the climate is one of hostility towards public educators the potential for us to be scapegoats and targets for negative actions seems to be significant.

These links are to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction documents that refer to the proposed waiver.  The first link also includes a link to the survey that DPI is using to collect data from citizens.  The second is a summary of the waiver proposal as it currently exists.  I encourage you to read them carefully and participate in the survey.  Make no mistake about it, receiving a waiver from the NCLB mandates is a step in the right direction.  However, it is only a small step and we must all work to try and return our educational system a more reasonable and student centered path.   

The real issue to me continues to be that of defining what a good, quality education looks like.  Is someone considered educated if they can pass a test and perform basic skills?  While that level of competence is necessary, don’t we want more from an education than just those basics?  What about other opportunities that allow for individuals to grow and develop as complete human beings?  We've seen how testing and accountability have sucked the life from many schools and educators.  The need to teach specific skills that are necessary primarily for passing a test does little to truly educate anyone. 

Attacking Education…
I've talked about the problems facing public education frequently over this past year.  With the implementation of Walker's budget it was clear that our schools would suffer significant financial problems as time went by.  We knew that the first year would not be as bad as future years would be.  That was a scary proposition for supporters of public education, given the challenges of the 2011-12 budgets.  As school boards begin work on their budgets for the upcoming school year, expect to see some real stark problems to arise.

While it is difficult for many of us to understand the stance that state Republicans have taken on funding public education, their true motives and feelings are becoming clearer to the general public.  There is a real dislike for public education among the GOP leadership and these feelings are demonstrated by their words and actions. 

We know that a college education is a powerful tool in advancing an individual's economic and social status.  However, current policy is making it more and more difficult for many Americans to afford college.  While the Federal Student Loan Rate is set to double, we are cutting funding to our institutions of higher learning.

Attention must continue to be drawn to the ongoing issues of potential corruption in the Walker administration.  It is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is unacceptable to allow a corrupt administration to maintain power.  We must hold our elected officials to a high standard regardless of our political persuasions.  The leader of any organization is accountable for the actions of that organization and the people in it.  If the alleged incidents are proven to be true than Governor Walker needs to face the consequences of what went on under his leadership.  These allegations are not trivial ones.   

Almost as problematic as the allegations of criminal activity are in my mind are the responses to the investigation and coverage of the issues raised.  Conservative media personalities are attempting to gloss over the events as typical liberal attacks on a conservative.  The Walker administration is moving ahead as with seemingly hypocritical actions like creating a task force to eliminate fraud in state government.  It's hard to picture someone being a "good steward" of taxpayer money when they allowed resources provided by taxpayers to be used for their personal gain. 

Of equal significance to me is the general feeling that I get that the Governor seems to see the issue not as wrong doing, but rather as an unfortunate inconvenience.  The, now famous, email where he speaks of not needing the negative media coverage strikes me as a huge problem.  An ethical person does the right thing as much as possible (recognizing that none of us are perfect), and when a mistake is made works to correct it.  The corrections are made, not because of possible repercussions but because it is the correct thing to do.  The appearance that Walker was more concerned about media attention than about the possible violation of the law is not something I want to see in the chief executive of my state. 

State of the State vs. State of the Union…
January is a time of reflection and goal setting.  This is true in all areas of our lives, including politics.  This past week both President Obama and Governor Walker delivered their views on where we've been and where we are headed. 

It is interesting that both of these chief executives have been accused of being divisive and of failing to achieve the goals they set during their campaigns.  Both face elections this year (assuming no major developments in the recall of Governor Walker).  However, despite these general similarities the differences between the two political leaders and their messages are striking. 

These two men represent the stark differences in our political ideologies today.  It is the contrasting world views and how they chose to deal with their opposition that sets the tone for the current state of our society, nationally and on a state level. 

Here in Wisconsin Scott Walker took a "crisis" and a "mandate" and used them to attack the rights of the working and middle classes.  His administration faces allegations of scandal and is frequently accused of using questionable political tactics to promote their agenda.  Bipartisan efforts are few and far between, unless you count the recall effort. 

How did Walker choose to address all these contentious issues?  In essence he either ignored them or countered the controversy with generalized comments.  In his first State of the State message he talked about the need to sacrifice and the "crisis" Wisconsin faced.  Now after a year in office he painted a picture of success, one not consistently supported by data.   

It is difficult to paint the picture that Wisconsin is better off after a year of Walker's administration.  The agenda that was offered for the upcoming year wasn't one that gave most of us a great deal of hope that things would be changing for the better.  His was a message of continuing reductions in accountability, less citizen accessibility and a less transparent government.  This government, while being less influenced by citizens will continue to benefit a small number of well connected citizens.   

President Obama's time in office has been markedly different.  He too inherited a problematic budget and a contentious electorate.  However, his initial efforts to administer the government were more conciliatory in nature.  Now, after several years of compromise he is taking a more aggressive approach.  His message was much stronger and more geared towards supporting the majority of Americans.

Republican response was predictable and focused on a few basic points.  Points that have been used over and over during Obama's time in office.

At the end of the day, the real state of our society can be judged by the way the common person lives their lives.  All the rhetoric in the world is, in the end, just words.  What matters is how we treat our fellow citizens, how we care for those who need our help and how we treat those who are different from us.  Government exists to provide a framework for a just and civil society.  That is what our founding documents say and that is what our nation has claimed to stand for.  Economics and politics are simply vehicles for us to use as we move towards a society where people enjoy freedom and equal rights.  The nation seems to be headed in the right direction, Wisconsin is struggling to find the path.

A Free Press?…
Is our media too liberal, or is it too conservative?  The answer to that question probably depends on your political ideology.  There is no doubt that we spend almost as much time talking about how news is presented as we do talking about the news itself.  In some cases the press becomes a story in itself. 

There is no doubt that a free press occupies an important place in the creation of and in maintaining a free, democratic society.  In the 1st Amendment to our Constitution it is clear that the freedom of the press is considered a vital part of our democratic society:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Over time it is clear that, while they may not always agree with or appreciate the efforts of the press, our leaders have recognized the importance of a free press that accurately conveys information to the public.  James Madison said it well when he stated, “Nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power, and to withhold from them information without which power is abused. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps

Joseph Pulitzer may have had a vested interest in promoting the press, but this quote clearly states its value, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery.”

We need sources of information that are accurate and that present as complete a picture of events as possible.  Without these sources it is impossible for a citizen to form valid opinions about what is happening in the world around us.  Without accurate information our opinions become less than what they should be.  We become trapped by the restrictions on knowledge, and our influence on our government, economy, and all other areas of importance are minimized.  We become pawns of larger forces that seek to control us.  

It is obvious that there is no way to present all the facts of a story.  In fact, what constitutes fact is often subject to debate.  We know that it is nearly impossible to find any "truth" as we discuss events and that most of what we experience in life is subject to interpretation.  A free and independent press strives to present information in as complete and neutral a manner as possible.  Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.  Whatever the outcome it is influenced by a nearly infinite number of factors.

Our job as consumers is to sift through the information and try to form our own opinion based on the evidence we have available to us.  That is the importance of having a number of media outlets to look to for our information.  If we only have limited sources then we will have a limited perspective on what is happening. 
Benjamin Disraeli, a British Prime Minister, said, “News is that which comes from the North, East, West and South, and if it comes from only one point of the compass, then it is a class publication and not news.”

In addition to needing multiple sources of information we also need to differentiate between fact and opinion.  This is one of the standards that I'm accountable for when teaching my 4th and 5th graders, but it is one that many adults would fail if they were assessed on their ability to discern the difference.  Simply put, a fact is different from opinion in the level of "proof" that supports the statement.  I explain this to my students by using examples and we discuss the differences.  There certainly is a grey area where fact and opinion meet, and we need to understand and appreciate the differences.  Many times we must make our decisions based on incomplete or inconclusive information, but we still rely on sources of fact to make our best judgment. 

Turn on a news show and watch carefully.  Here in the United States we are finding it more and more difficult to find news and easier to find editorials.  Why is this happening?  Is it because we don't want to hear information that contradicts our existing views?  Is it because we need to be entertained so much and news is boring, while editorials are exciting?  Try listening to a news broadcast and then compare that to a news talk show like Rush Limbaugh or Ed Schultz.  Watch a nightly news show and then tune it to a cable news show.  Notice a difference. 

The United States currently ranks 47th in terms of freedom as ranked by Reporters Without Borders.  This puts us behind countries like South Africa and El Salvador.

We also face troubling issues with the corporate ownership of our media.  Next time you are at a magazine rack, just look at the publishers of the material.  There are a limited number of companies that own most of our media outlets.  They provide the filter that we see our current events through.  It is difficult to imagine that the heads of these corporations are totally hands off and don't have any influence on what is broadcast and printed in our mass media.  Once again we see the continuing struggle between a small number of elite who control the majority of the resources and the rest of the citizenry.    

When you combine the restrictions imposed on the free press, the corporate ownership of the media and the lack of educated consumption by the citizens of America you have a recipe for disaster.  As we gear up for a difficult political battle in Wisconsin it becomes clear that we must have an informed and educated electorate to counter the propaganda that will be put out by the supporters of the GOP agenda.  

“A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. … Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become more important. But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”
Winston Churchill

The attacks on worker's rights have been more visible in the past year than in any previous year in memory.  While there has been an underlying, anti-worker sentiment in many policies over the past decades, the past year saw the efforts to restrict the rights of labor increase at all levels of government.  This is obvious to us in Wisconsin, but no less visible in Indiana, Michigan and across the United States.  Even after the backlash to the GOP's efforts resulted in successful recalls and referenda the Republican leadership isn't backing down.

It would be very easy for workers to give in to the powerful forces arrayed against them.  That is probably what the GOP anticipated when they unveiled their plans last year.  Instead it appears that the working people of America are waking up and regaining a sense of purpose and pride in themselves.  The result the Republicans got wasn't exactly what they were looking for.  Instead of a landslide victory, they got a more organized and more committed opposition. 

The question remains as to where the events of 2011 will take us.  Will we see more unionized workers?  What will unions of the future look like? 

As of right now the data is mixed.  On one hand the number of unionized workers declined slightly in recent data.  Given the restrictions on public sector unions it would be difficult to see the trends go any other way.  On the other hand it appears that interest in private sector unions increased slightly.  Could this be a beginning to a rebirth of organized labor?  Time will tell, but we certainly have the opportunity to expand unions and reclaim labor's status in the political arena.

We have huge problems in Wisconsin right now.  This is clear in many areas, but one of particular interest (and that demonstrates the difficulties we face) is the area of mining. 

We have the GOP stating the obvious, Wisconsin is a state with a rich mining history.  If you don't know that then you don't know why we are called the "Badger State".  We also have an economy that needs a significant boost and Republicans argue that mining would give us just that.  According to the GOP that is really all the justification that we need to proceed with a mining bill that opens up our state to new mining initiatives. 

So what's the problem?
-The people don't necessarily support mining in their communities
-Many Native American groups view the bill as a violation of their rights  Although in an incredible display of ignorance Rep. Jeff Stone said, "I don't think our job is to provide a seat at the table for the tribes, who want to be treated as a sovereign nation."
-The environmental impacts are not certain and have significant negative potential.
-There are questions about the quality of the jobs that will be available to local citizens  
-There isn't an author to the bill which clearly benefits interests outside of Wisconsin as much, or potentially more than, local people

This bill is a microcosm of what has become common legislative practice in Wisconsin.  Ignorance and greed seem to be a major motivator for our current policy while advocacy for citizens seems to be of less concern.

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