Sunday, February 24, 2013

Issue #102 February 24, 2013- Primary Results, Organizing and the Budget

Primary Results, Democracy Threatened?…
A few thoughts about the February 19th primary…
The results of the Supreme Court race weren't terribly surprising.  There was little doubt that Justice Roggensack would advance and with the support of many key groups, Ed Fallone, was in good shape to be her opposition in April's election.  We should expect the usual Supreme Court race in Wisconsin to shape up over the next few weeks.  This means lots of rhetoric, lots of money from influential groups, and enough negative advertising to make everyone uncomfortable and frustrated with the process. 
It should be well understood by all Wisconsinites that this race will have a huge impact on our state's immediate future.  The way that legislation and policy is made under the Walker administrations rule insures that our courts will see lots of litigation and will play a pivotal role in deciding what laws and actions are implemented. 
If you remove the obvious connections that Roggensack has to the conservative base in Wisconsin, I still have significant concerns about her philosophy as a justice.  I have always believed that our system of government relied on "checks and balances" between the different branches to prevent any single entity from becoming the sole holder of power.  The Supreme Court exists as the final arbitrator in disputes over the constitutionality of any act by the executive or legislative branches.  Justice Roggensack operates under the belief that she should work to, "…Continue to uphold the legislative intent of the state Senate and Assembly."  A belief that I heard her articulate on Vickie McKenna's radio show last week as well.  Shouldn't our justices work to uphold the state Constitution and not the intent of the legislature?

The low turnout is an embarrassment and demonstrates the unwillingness of our state's citizens to fulfill their responsibilities as the cornerstone of democracy.  Is it really a democratic action if only about 1 in 10 people participate?  The fact that we saw such a poor turnout in a state that should recognize the importance of any election shows us that we still haven't learned our lessons from the recent past.  We must do everything possible to get more people to the polls in April or we will continue to face a government that only represents the few and not the many.

We are becoming a society of special interests and this is undermining our government's ability to govern and our ability to function as a unified nation.  The fact of the matter is that with a small number of voters participating, these off year elections have become an opportunity for special interest groups to insert themselves into the power structure of our government.  With most people sitting out the elections it only takes a small number of dedicated voters to swing an election in any direction.  The candidates who are elected wield the same representative power if they receive the votes of 6% of the population as if they garner the support of 96% of the eligible voters.  Suddenly our "representative democracy" really isn't so representative is it?

Of equal concern is the continuing division of the electorate into special interest groups based on demographics or other unifying interests.  As our nation stratifies along racial, gender, religious, economic or other lines we see less cooperation among groups and more "infighting" between those whose interests are often very similar.  This can be observed in the conflicts that arise in efforts to address issues like the Achievement Gaps in our schools, the disparity in incarceration rates, the economic inequalities that exist in our nation and in countless other areas where we see injustice and inequality in our society.

That our nation has some huge problems dealing with issues of social justice shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.  Yet our ways of dealing with them are in many cases hampering efforts to address the problems we face.  Instead of uniting together and finding common ground we often find ourselves forming task forces, committees, or organizations that in themselves are segregated and divisive. 

As a white, middle-class (for now) male should my opinions about issues of race or gender be of lesser value?  Shouldn't I have just as much interest in resolving the challenges we face and improving the opportunities for all my fellow citizens?  Wouldn't we find more lasting and powerful solutions if our organizing efforts centered around finding common ground across all demographics instead of only reaching out to those who are "directly impacted"?  Aren't we all impacted by the inequities that exist for any of our citizens?

Of course it is difficult to mobilize widespread support for an issue that appears to only impact a smaller demographic group.  Take for example some of these statistics for African-American citizens of Dane County (this information was compiled by the Urban League of Greater Madison).
·         In 2011, 25.2% of Blacks in Dane County were unemployed compared to 4.8% of Whites.

·         Just 55.6% of Black men and 62.6% of Black women in Dane County were employed in 2010 compared to 72% of White men and 68% of White women.

·         In 2011, the median household income for Blacks in Dane County was $20,664, less than 1/3 the “median income” of White households in Dane County ($63,673). It was also less than the household income for Blacks statewide ($24,399) and nationwide ($33,223). This means that the majority of Blacks in Dane County live in poverty while most whites are upper middle class.

·         Contrary to what some believe, only 8.1% of Blacks in Dane County drew cash public assistance in 2010. However, this was much higher than the .9% rate among Whites. Additionally, 34.2% of all Blacks in Dane County received Food stamps/SNP benefits because their low-incomes qualified them for it.

·         In 2011, 74.8% of Black children in Dane County were living in poverty compared to 5.5% of White children. The poverty rate among Black children in Dane County was 50% higher than the poverty rate among Black children statewide, and nearly twice as high as the black child poverty rate nationwide. The poverty rate among Black children grew from less than 50% in 2006 to 75% in 2011, while the poverty rate among White children remained stable.

·         In 2010, 86% of all Black, 85% of all Latino, 49% of Asian and 18% of White students enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District were poor (qualified for free-and-reduced price lunch). Students of color now comprise 55% of the total enrollment in MMSD (2012-13 school year).

·         In 2011, nearly half (48.1%) of Dane County’s Black third graders failed to meet proficiency standards in reading, compared to 10.9% of White third graders. Similarly, nearly half (47.7%) of Dane County’s Black eighth graders failed to meet proficiency standards in math, compared to 10.4% of White eighth graders.

·         In 2012, 50% of Black students attending the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), Dane County’s largest public school system and the state’s second largest, failed to graduate from high school.

·         Just 3% of Black high school seniors attending all four of MMSD’s comprehensive high schools in 2011-12 were academically ready for college according to high school graduation rates and results from the ACT college entrance exam.

·         In 2010, only 20% of Blacks age 25 and older held bachelor’s degrees compared to 46% of Whites, 14% of Hmong and 22% of Hispanics.

·         In 2010, just 19% of Blacks in Dane County owned their homes while 81% were renters. The same year, 64% of Whites owned their homes while 34% rented. This was the exact same rate of homeownership for Blacks in Dane County 1990.

·         In 2010, Blacks owned less than 1% of all businesses in Dane County, while comprising 5% of the County’s total population.

·         In 2011, according to data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Minority Business Development and City of Madison, there were are only four black-owned businesses with 10 or more full-time employees in Dane County.

·         Low marriage rates are also challenging the wealth accumulation and financial stability of Black families more than other groups in Dane County. In 2010, 55% of Black women in Dane County were not married, compared to 33% of White, 40% of Hmong and 35% of Latino women.

·         In 2010, 75% of Black births in Dane County were to unmarried mothers, compared to 20% of White births in Dane County. This was somewhat consistent with national trends, as 73% of Black births and 29% of White births were to unmarried mothers the same year. While births to single mothers were 4 times higher among Blacks than Whites in Wisconsin in 2010, the Black child poverty rate was 14 times greater than that of Whites.

·         In 2006, a study by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor found that 47% of African American males between the ages of 25-29 in Dane County were either incarcerated, on probation or under some form of court supervision. This percentage continues to hover around 45% with a significant number of men who’ve been released from jail and prison reporting significant difficulties with finding employment.

Startling statistics, definitely.  The Urban League uses these statistics as a rallying call to gather members of the African-American community to work to address them.  I certainly don't challenge the need for members of this community to work to address issues that directly impact them, but also argue that the conditions of any group impacts our community as a whole.  Will any group, operating in relative isolation be able to impact their situation as effectively as the same group operating united with others in the community?  Taking the Civil Rights Movement as an example it appears clear to me that it is only through increasing the diversity in a movement can we hope to create real change. 

The reality of modern America is that a vast majority of our population, independent of race or ethnicity, is losing their ability to influence their socio-economic conditions.  The loss of power is used as a wedge to separate groups and to increase the status and power of those with access to decision makers.  This is another reason why inequality shouldn't be an issue addressed by any single demographic group.  If we don't work to educate and engage all people then we will see a majority of citizens operate under the false assumption that certain issues don't impact them. 

The challenge is to find ways to bring people together and to make the issues of inequality relevant to all people.  It is too easy for any of us to ignore the challenges faced by others and concentrate solely on our own interests.  This problem is compounded by the existing prejudices and stereotypes that members of different communities have regarding each other.  We are a society that is divided in so many ways. 

The problems we face are compounded by the rhetoric and hyperbole that is thrown around in public forums.  For example, there were several comments after the school board primary that Madison's electorate was racist because Ananda Mirilli finished 3rd.  I can't speak for all the voters, but most of the people I know voted for the candidate of their choice based on other criteria than race or even gender.  I also can't speak about the politics that may or may not have gone on behind the scene.  The unfortunate reality of our current situation is that every action is viewed through a lens of mistrust, skepticism and outright dislike for those with opposing views.  This isn't to discount the real racism that does exist, but I believe that to make blanket statements about large groups of people does more harm than good.

The need for unity between groups and diversity in coalitions formed to promote positive change goes way beyond issues around race or ethnicity.  Any group that is working to create a power base to operate from needs to engage multiple groups in order to succeed.  Public employees can't win their fight without the support of all labor.  Defenders of public education can't successfully defend our public schools without going to the community as a whole.  We must even try to engage our opponents in dialog and build relationships with those who have opposing viewpoints whenever possible.  

In the end we must continue to work at the individual level to create unity out of the separations that are entrenched in all aspects of our national culture.  We need to find ways to celebrate our differences while building an identity as a nation that is working towards meeting the lofty expectations that we have so often expressed for our society.  We must remain conscious of our existing challenges while looking towards a future where we can see beyond our differences and recognize the value that every person has in a just and fair civilization.

Education Races…
The upcoming races for Seats 3, 4 and 5 on Madison's School Board will be very important as the district faces important issues and decisions during the next year.  This board will face continuing pressure to privatize our schools in order to address the achievement gap.  It will also be instrumental in the continually evolving labor relations situation that has been created by the actions of state Republicans.  They will also be working with a new superintendent who will very likely bring some new philosophies and ideas to the discussions around Madison's public schools.
One of the races, that for Seat #5, changed dramatically as Sarah Manski withdrew from the race.  This just after winning the primary election on Tuesday.
Tony Evers also will be involved in an important race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  It should be obvious that we public schools in Wisconsin can't afford to have a conservative who supports privatization and cuts to education in office at the state level.  Tony Evers has spoken against the "reforms" offered by Governor Walker and other GOP officials.   

It's Not About Education…
What is immensely frustrating to supporters of public education is the reality that so many of the "reforms" offered to "fix" our schools have very little to do with education.  Instead of addressing the real needs of our educational system, we are seeing initiatives launched that promote profits for a few and advance the goals of special interest groups over proposals that would benefit a majority of our students.
One example of this is the effort to expand the voucher system to more Wisconsin school districts.  Whether these vouchers are for students in general education, or those with special needs the impact on school districts and the families they serve are negative and harmful.      

Even businesses in education aren't exempt from the unfair practices imposed by GOP leaders.

Scott Walker's budget contains many parts that harm our public schools.  We are supposed to be grateful for any increases in funding after decimating public school's finances in the last budget, but these "modest increases" are at best a token offering.  At worst they are a smokescreen to make Walker appear moderate to the masses as we build towards a 2014 gubernatorial race.  If nobody who is directly involved in education seems to support Walker's proposals, then whose interests does this budget represent?  

Budget fight could be looming in the state Senate : Ct

There is no denying that the continuing assault on public education and educators has had an impact on those in the profession. 

We can't afford to ignore the continuing assaults on all public employees in Wisconsin.  Public educators are only one part of the public employee ranks.

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