Sunday, July 29, 2012

What This Is…
Issue #73- July 29, 2012
In this issue: A Citizen's Responsibility, Walkergate and Issue Updates

Our Civic Duty…
I've written quite a bit about the competing visions for our nation that currently are competing for control of our nation in the political, economic and social spheres.  It appears that the extremes on both sides are dominating the debate over issues that are of importance to all of us, no matter our race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.  It is becoming clear that neither extreme provides a long term, realistic solution to the problems we face that will allow our nation to remain a truly united country.

Unfortunately, the current political climate is forcing our politicians to adopt positions that are increasingly farther from what most of us believe and want for our society.  This extremism combined with an increasing reliance on short sound-bite media coverage means that we are in an era of one-line, limited context political grandstanding.  Our information about policy comes at us quickly and in a disjointed manner that makes it difficult for most citizens to form an accurate picture of what is going on.  People form their opinions based on headlines, hearsay and propaganda.

What we are seeing is a trend towards political grandstanding and divisive politics where substance is valued less than style.  Political leaders are using the struggles and suffering of citizens to score political points and promote their own interests instead of looking for ways to help promote the general welfare of the people they represent. 

At the same time many of our political leaders are failing to uphold their duties as representatives of the people, small groups of wealthy, influential people are asserting their power to promote their personal agendas. 

We, the people, remain our own best defense in promoting quality government that represents the best interests of our society as a whole.  Each of us has a responsibility to stay informed and to hold our elected officials accountable.  We need to support politicians who listen to, and represent their constituents and vote those who don't out of office.  Our representatives need to know that we are aware of their actions and that we will support them when they do their jobs well, and hold them accountable when they don't.

We must also continue to work to make sure our fellow citizens are aware of what is going on.  Recent electoral history in Wisconsin shows us that the public is continuing to buy a message that doesn't hold true under scrutiny.  We will be facing a series of very important elections over the next few months and our efforts are vital as we work to preserve and protect our values of freedom and social justice.   

Wisconsinites have long mocked other states' (most notably Illinois) reputations for their corrupt public officials and crooked politics.  We looked at the shenanigans going on in other places with disdain and touted our relatively clean political status.  Now it appears that we are leaving the "clean politics" rank and plunging headlong into a trough of corruption and illicit political acts.

While it is certainly difficult to find politicians in modern America who are free from the taint of big money and other outside influences, Wisconsin's politicians are quickly gaining a reputation as being among the most corrupted.  In fact the general tone on-line seems to have switched from a predominantly supportive and sympathetic one to a "you deserve what your state voted for" theme.  Based on the fact that we have the only U.S. governor with a legal defense fund, legislation drafted by special interests and now a sitting justice with a legal defense fund, it is difficult to counter these attacks. 

For those who thought that the recall was unmerited because Walker hadn't done anything criminal, keep an eye out on the continuing stories surrounding his administration (both current and past).      

Issue Updates…

Many people continue to see the struggle for worker's rights only as a political conflict between unions and conservatives.  This narrow view of the struggle gives an advantage to anti-labor forces who have aggressively attacked unions as being greedy, wasteful and a negative force on our economy.  Conservatives, heavily supported by corporate and other business interests, have been able to "divide and conquer" workers by preying on the struggles that many middle and working class citizens are facing in these difficult economic times.  

The bigger picture shows us may disturbing trends in the workplace as workers are paid less, work more and face more dangerous and unpleasant working conditions.  It is clear that there is a concentrated effort being made to protect the interests of management over those of a majority of workers.    

There is no doubt that workers in America need to "wake up" and become more engaged in protecting their rights in the workplace.  Conservatives are playing on a historical American fear of socialism and communism, but phrases like "Workers of the world, unite" have a place in American society and American economics.  Time an time again throughout our history we've seen the effects of severe economic stratification and it has never been peaceful or productive.  It is time for the middle and working class of America to exert their strength or else we will face a long, difficult and unpleasant struggle to regain what we have lost.   

This past year has seen Wisconsin regress significantly in many ways.  We've set the clock back 60, 100 or more years in many social, political and economic areas.  Our treatment of children and our public education system is no exception to this.  Many people would like to see us go back to the "good-old days" with regards to public education.  For these people this would mean a return of straight rows of desks, children being seen and not heard and a back to basics curriculum.  What is ignored in this model is the fact that we must expect more from our students than what we did in the past.  How can we expect our children to compete in the future if we use teaching methods and school models from the 1950's? 

What is most frustrating is that many of the attacks on public education are not based on realistic criteria.  Instead of accurately assessing our efforts to educate our young people, we rely on standardized tests and other flawed measures.  Then, using these "facts" we hear about the failures of public education and the need for massive reform.   

I've said it many times before, I don't believe that our public schools are perfect institutions.  Every human endeavor is in constant need of monitoring and improvement.  However, our current school systems have the potential to meet the needs of the most students and need to be supported and further developed. 

Public schools are being attacked for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is the continuing issues surrounding Achievement Gaps.  We have always had students with different needs and different abilities.  In the past we segregated schools for a variety of reasons and excluded children based on different physical, emotional or cognitive reasons as well as race, gender or other physical characteristics. 

Modern public schools are mandated to be inclusive and provide services for a wide range of student emotional, academic and physical needs.  This is a mandate that most educators embrace and, while challenging, also provides many positive opportunities for everyone involved in the educational process.  With adequate support public schools provide excellent opportunities for students who attend them.  Unfortunately, we are seeing fewer and fewer resources allocated for public education while more demands are placed on educators.

We are also seeing a disturbing trend of increasing segregation of our public schools.  As our schools segregate based on race and social class we see a return to the separate and unequal education that previous generations experienced.  The stratification of our neighborhoods, combined with the illusion of choice provided by the privatization of education accelerates the segregation of our public schools.   

Along with the segregation of schools we can't ignore the impact of the recent "reforms" that have been enacted here in Wisconsin regarding public sector unions.  Governor Walker can try and spin his policies by saying they are good for education, but in reality they are only good for the bottom line of business owners and special interests.  Claiming that reducing state spending on education by $1.6 billion in the last budget is a positive step for Wisconsin students is ridiculous.  Walker's reforms make our most vulnerable students even more "at-risk".   

Public educators are facing an uphill struggle as we face threats to our employment along with declining working conditions and increased animosity towards our profession.  Many of us are facing a difficult choice as to whether to remain in the field or to move to "greener pastures".  Those of us who are committed to improving educational opportunities for all students must be vigilant and ready to defend public education.  

It is surprising to many people that the United States Constitution originally left much of the discretion about voting in the control of the states.  Gaining the vote has been a struggle for many groups throughout our history and voting has become established as a right that most of us expect to be protected through policy and legislation.  Over time our national government has exerted more influence over who can cast a ballot in an election.  However, states still maintain their rights to set the rules for elections as long as they don't violate the Constitution or Federal law. 

The GOP has seen an opportunity to attempt to cement their political power by imposing restrictions on voting at the state level.  They have misrepresented facts and mislead the public so that many citizens are fearful of widespread voter fraud.  This fear has allowed the GOP in Wisconsin to try and implement one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.  The full effect of these efforts is still undetermined, but the intent is clear.    

The real damage to our electoral system may not be as much about who can cast a ballot as it is the quickly eroding confidence that our process of electing officials is honest and accurate.  Unless there is a significant change in laws at all levels along with a radical change in the interpretation of the Constitution, we should see most citizen's right to vote protected for the near future.  

What is disturbing is the idea that a person's vote may not be counted accurately and that the "real fraud" in the system is much bigger than any individual voter.  This lack of confidence in the integrity of the system does more to disenfranchise citizens than any single piece of legislation.  Our democratic traditions and the foundation of our government is threatened by the lack of public confidence from all sources.  After all, if don't respect the process, how can we respect the office holders who emerge from it?       

The past year has seen many families torn apart by the political upheaval in Wisconsin.  If families can't discuss politics without "fireworks" than it stands to reason that business and politics wouldn't mix well either.  Many smaller businesses have tried to stay away from making broad statements about their owners personal beliefs for that very reason.  While they may share their ideals with regular customers, or make their social, political or economic statements through their choice of products or treatment of employees, they refrain from making broad statements regarding specific issues. 

This is true for many reasons, but I would guess that the main reason is that it makes good business sense not to alienate any potential customers.  As a consumer I have the right to spend my hard-earned money on products and at businesses that support my values.  I consciously choose to make my best effort to purchase goods and services that I feel good about.  That's my right as a consumer and I respect the rights of anyone else to do the same. 

Business owners also have the right to their political beliefs, but need to be ready to accept the consequences (positive and negative) for expressing them publically.  What makes the ethical positions of these larger business owners more important is their ability, under current political finance laws, to influence public policy.  By choosing to exert an inordinate amount of influence on our political process (either individually or in groups), business owners have inserted their personal politics into their business world.       

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