Sunday, June 9, 2013

Issue #118- Late Night Politics and Mistrust

A Day Night That Will Live In Infamy…
Here in Wisconsin, the last two June 5ths have not been kind to the citizens of our state.  June 5, 2012 saw Governor Walker win the recall election and emboldened Republicans to continue their course of action that led to June 5, 2013. 

This year conservatives in Wisconsin celebrated their "special day" by moving a destructive budget through the Joint Finance Committee in the dead of night.  After numerous delays designed to avoid press coverage and to eliminate public response, the GOP controlled committee wrapped up their business well into the morning of the next day.  This has become a trademark of the current Republican controlled legislature, do business behind closed doors (keeping lobbyists in the loop) and then hold public sessions late at night.  

The budget that was approved was essentially a laundry list of payoffs to special interests, and a continuation of the efforts to privatize our state.  Thus, moving power and money into the hands of a small number of wealthy, well connected individuals.  It keeps us on a path that is leading Wisconsin in the wrong direction using ideas that have failed miserably in the past and that don't provide much hope for the future.  

Misplaced Mistrust…
The current political, social and economic climate in Wisconsin is built on fear and mistrust.  This is especially true when talking about the public sector and the services that our government provides.  We are constantly hearing the conservative voices saying that we should mistrust our government and that the private sector is the only positive force in our society.  They use quotes from our Founders about limited government and the idea that the power of the citizens should be supreme.

Yet, if we look a little deeper and think a little harder the conservative message becomes less appealing and more divisive.  Our nation's power is built on the need for a strong government.  The times when our nation has been weakest are when we have had a decentralized government with limited power.  After the Revolutionary War ended we faced a struggle between advocates for a national government versus those who favored a looser confederacy of states.  Had our national government remained weak it is debatable as to whether we would have survived beyond our national infancy.  Of course, this is a complicated historical issue, but if people want to use the language and imagery of the Founders, we need to be sure we understand the context of the words and ideas that are being used. 

What really doesn't make sense to me is the fact that those who want us to fear and mistrust our government would have us place our trust in "the market", or in private business' hands.  Why should we mistrust our government when it is the only thing truly accountable to the people?  Private interests are just that, private.  I have the ability to have some control over what the government does through voting, public input and direct action.  I have little control over what private interests do.  They don't have to hold public meetings, they don't have to document their actions in the same ways and they operate outside the control of the public.  The larger the private interest, the less ability the general public has to impact their actions.   

There is a clear effort being made to reduce the public's ability to impact the actions of our government.  Often these efforts are lead by the very groups that claim to want a government that represents the people.  The question is, which "people" do they want represented?

We are getting conflicting messages.  On one hand we are told that our national identity is defined by "rugged individualism" and that the "government that governs best, governs least".  We should fear the "over-reaching hands of our government" and be ready to defend our rights.  Yet, at the same time we see our rights undermined by business interests and by a minority who seek to monopolize power.  The end result of privatization is control of resources and power by a limited group, claiming to be espousing "American Values".  We are sold "Freedom and Choice", but receive "subjugation and limitations".   Government and the public sphere is the place where the people have rights and can be heard.  The private sector isn't accountable in the same way to those who don't have the financial, political or social capital to compete in the "market".      

This is true in business and it is definitely true when it comes to public services like education as well.  Those who are calling for school choice and an expansion of vouchers don't recognize what the end result will be.  You may be dissatisfied with the state of our public schools, and you may feel that they are a bureaucratic institution filled with all the frustrating aspects that that entails.  However, at the very least our public schools operate under a set of rules, laws and have a level of accountability that private schools don't.  Students and families have rights in our public schools that they need to fight for, but that exist under the law.  By privatizing our schools we change the rules of the game and force parents to "shop around" for the "best deal" when we know that there will be efforts to mislead families.  Private schools will advertise one thing, but may not (and often have not) deliver on their promises.   

Unions and worker's rights are another area where this misleading information and fear based thinking is used to undermine the rights of many.  Conservatives have, and rightly so, been upset by the IRS's targeting of conservative groups.  They say that these groups provide a way for citizens to unite and promote their ideals, and speak with a unified voice.  Almost sounds like the way unions that have been vilified here in Wisconsin operate, doesn't it?  A group of people who thinks like we do is "good", a group that holds opposite ideals, "bad".  Part of living in our "free" society is accepting that both sides have a right to organize, communicate and act in ways to promote their own interests.  It is the job of the society to sift through the different viewpoints and arrive at a consensus as to what ideas will be implemented and supported.   

Those who support the efforts to undermine public confidence in their government and in those who deliver the services that our society needs, work hard to create this sense of crisis and disaster.  The natural response is to fight back and to react to every perceived threat with a defensive and reactionary response.  Positions become entrenched and compromise is vilified and seen as a weakness.  Fewer and fewer people are able to look at issues from different perspectives and even fewer view those with opposing views with respect. 

The extreme views of either side lead us down the same path towards a divided and hostile society.  These are the views that are projected into the public eye as being "normal", when in reality, most of us live, work and think in the middle somewhere.  We can't allow ourselves to be guided by the extremes, but must be accurately informed and involved in making positive change happen.            

Aiming for the Wrong Target…
Whenever anyone tries to improve any aspect of the society they live in it is important to find common ground and to set goals that can guide them in the improvement (dare I say reform) process.  The importance of these goals can't be understated; they provide direction, unity and a sense of purpose.  However, the goals that are set must be ones that actually help us achieve these things.  When the goals we create don't do this, or in some cases lead us in the wrong direction, the results are harmful.

In public education we have set our sights on achieving objectives that are too frequently questionable in nature.  We see real problems with Achievement Gaps, student engagement in school, communications between students/families/educators, graduation rates and other important areas.  We can't deny the problems, but what we choose to do about the challenges we face in public education is within our power to impact.  We see too many efforts, and too much hard work being done, with results that simply don't meet our students’ needs, or our own expectations.  We also see some reforms driven by those who seek to criticize and not to improve the outcomes for many students.      

Not only are we often aiming for the wrong target, the targets that we truly do want to hit are moving and very elusive.  They require the concerted efforts of a society committed to improving outcomes for all students, not just a "lucky" few.  It is time we stop blaming educators, cutting budgets and trying to fix our problems with a false layer of accountability.  America has the resources and abilities to make our public education systems into places where all students can achieve.  It is a matter of setting proper goals, supporting our schools and working as a community to address the needs of our students.  The outcomes could be incredibly powerful for our entire society. 

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