Sunday, January 5, 2014

#146 January 5, 2014- New Year, Old Issues

Happy New Year!!
The More Things Change. . .
The end of every year is a time of reflection about the past year, and a time of hope and planning for the new one.  We think about our accomplishments and look forward to making changes that will improve our lives in some way.  We frequently focus our attention on our personal lives, but can just as easily follow the same process regarding issues on a societal level as well. 

Just like most people's personal resolutions and reflections seem to continually focus on things like health (losing weight, quitting a bad habit, etc.), family and otherwise trying to "improve" ourselves, societal resolutions share similarities from year to year.  As the protest signs around the Square in Madison during 2011 said, "I Can't Believe We Have to Protest This Same Stuff Again!"  We see a pattern in the issues and problems our society faced in 2013, and that we will continue to struggle with in 2014. 

These patterns revolve around the constant tension and conflict between contrasting views of how our society should operate.  It is a conflict that has been ongoing for centuries, and that will continue into the future.  It pits those who want the "freedom" to act on their own individual desires, for their own personal gain, against those who believe that any society should do its utmost to promote opportunity, equality and hope for all its citizens.  The intensity of the conflict changes from year to year, and we currently find ourselves in a period of heightened struggle, where significant differences exist and the stakes of the conflict are high.    

A brief look at the issues that will occupy many of our minds, and be a focus for our efforts to make positive change happen,  in 2014. . .
Economics- The economy will always be near the top of any society's list of concerns.  The major issue with America's economy is the increasingly huge gap in income between the wealthiest few, and the majority of us.  No society can enjoy sustainable success while suffering such wide gaps in wealth, and our nation is suffering the effects of the economic disparities. 

These inequities grow out of a misunderstanding of the role government should play in our economy and a mistaken belief that unfettered capitalism will provide relief to the many who live in poverty.  We are being intentionally mislead and misinformed about economic realities in order to maintain a system that doesn't work for most of us.   

Tax cuts for the wealthy and corporate America continue to be protected and encouraged, while the war on educators and the middle class continues.  This tax cut isn't a huge one for educators, but is symbolic of the problems with our economic policies.  

The misinformation about the "reforms" of Act 10 and the cuts in income for public employees are another example of how our economic discussions are focused on the wrong issues, thus producing the wrong "solutions".  Tax breaks for the "job producers" and income cuts for the "job doers" are not the way to grow an economy.  

Millions of Americans are seeing their path to prosperity and success blocked by the unfair and biased student loan policies that have been implemented to preserve the profits of the financial industry.  

Elections- We have learned, painfully so, that elections really do matter.  For Wisconsinites this reality has been magnified since 2010 when hundreds of thousands of us stayed away from the polls and the minority elected a GOP controlled legislature and Governor Walker.  2014 will be a politically charged year with the race for governor being one of the highest profile campaigns in an election cycle filled with important races. 

Thrown into the mix is the ongoing issue of "Election Fraud", campaign finance reform, and voter ID laws.  We must work to continue to make sure that the right to vote is protected for as many citizens as possible.  

Education- Our public education system is one of the primary battlegrounds in the struggle.  Economics and school funding play a huge role in this conflict.  The conservatives who currently control our state government are hoping to shift the financial support the state provides away from public schools and towards private educational endeavors.  This puts a significant amount of pressure on local school boards to come up with funding to make sure public schools are able to meet the needs of the students who attend them. 

The current theme in our debates around public schools is the supposed failure of the current system in meeting the needs of our most at-risk students.  Yet, the "documented" failures are not those of the public schools, but rather a reflection of the failures of our entire society on all levels to achieve true equality of opportunity for every citizen.  The current push to mandate "reforms" and use excessive amounts of testing to quantify "success" does little to help address the underlying issues.    

50 years after the battles to integrate our schools we are seeing a return to segregation, separate, and unequal, educational opportunities for our students.  We are rapidly developing a two tiered system of schooling with the best in methodology and resources dedicated to a small number of students.  The rest of the students struggle to achieve without the necessary support of anyone outside of the educators, families and immediate community that live and work directly with these students. 

We can't ignore the statistics, and by statistics I'm not referring to those that focus on the Achievement Gaps in testing scores.  The data that needs to be emphasized is numbers like this, "In Chicago, 88% of the students affected by the school closures are African-American. The numbers are just as glaring in Philadelphia, where 81% are black. In both cities more than 93% of the affected students come from poor families. The numbers have played out much the same way in Detroit, New York, Newark, NJ, Oakland and Washington, D.C. Parents of school children in each of these cities have filed federal complaints under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to fight school closings."

There are gaps in achievement, but those gaps are a result of many different factors.  The idea that we can blame our public schools, cut their resources, mandate their curriculums and expect positive change to occur is ludicrous at best.  Reforming schools through privatization simply magnified the inequities.  The fact that we are mandating "reforms" in public schools and allowing private educational providers more latitude in their methodology doesn't close achievement gaps, it widens them.  Our public schools have the experienced professional staff, and the mandate to serve the needs of all children that can truly make a difference in providing opportunities for all students to learn.  They need our support, not our disapproval and neglect.

Values, Morality and Diversity- We like to debate and discuss the decline of the morals of our society.  It seems like every generation bemoans the loss of the traditional values that made our nation great.  Whether it is Twerking, Twisting, or Waltzing there have always been those who have seen the end of society in popular culture.  In addition to the generational conflicts that arise, we also see significant issues between different cultures and lifestyles that cross many boundaries and cause significant angst for many.  In a nation as diverse as modern America, these conflicts are inevitable and often heated. 

Morality and societal values are important and we need to make sure that we are constantly aware of the direction that our society is moving.  Public policy, media messages and our own actions all contribute to the moral environment that we live in.  It is here that we see a contradiction between political philosophy and ethics that is difficult for many to address consistently.  If we are to truly live in a society where we can enjoy freedoms in expression, speech and religion, then we must find ways to limit the influence of the government in our personal decision making.  This means that we have to exclude our personal religious ideology from the legal and political realms as much as possible.

The law and our government must have a moral base, but the base must reflect the entire society that lives under the established rules.  No fringe element, or even a religious majority viewpoint is allowed to dominate the conversation or the policies enacted.  Our Constitution establishes this and the reality of our nation requires tolerance.  We are currently seeing a rise in religious extremism that threatens to upset the delicate balance between religion, morality and governing.  We need to work to maintain the separation of church and state and make sure that we don't allow an extremist minority to mandate their beliefs on all citizens.       

Labor- Worker's rights and organized labor provided the spark that ignited the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011, and we will continue to see issues around this topic at the forefront of the struggle in 2014.  One of the biggest problems is the inequality in incomes between most employees and the executives who manage businesses.  This is an issue of equity, but also an issue that impacts our nation's economic future.  Simply put, if employees don't earn a living wage, then they don't have discretionary income to make purchases that fuel economic stability and growth.  

The wealthy, "job creators" of America have a responsibility to look out for the good of the entire economy, and not just their own personal wealth.  We have given those who run companies significant latitude and freedom, and have been rewarded with downsizing, outsourcing and other policies that stunt our economy and harm our citizens.  Instead of giving tax breaks and other benefits out to corporate America, we need to implement policies that support small business and mandate practices that grow our economy and provide for our citizens.

Organized labor has an important role to play in this process.  Without organization and a unified voice, employees lack the resources and power to make labor's needs heard in the workplace.  Opponents of organized labor point to the political activism of unions as a negative tendency.  Yet, it is in the political arena that labor policies are created, enacted and enforced.  Business has a voice in politics, why can't labor express itself as well?

The efforts to undermine labor's ability to act in its own defense are many and include legislation like Act 10, changes in implementation/interpretation of existing rules, and efforts to discredit unions in public discourse.  There is a vocal minority, supported by pro-business, conservative organizations that seek to control the discussion of labor issues and force unions out of the political arena. 

An example of this is the American Association of Educators, an organization that is seeking to gain a foothold among Wisconsin's educators.  Their efforts provide a synopsis of organized labors opponent's views, and the inaccuracies that are perpetuated in trying to discredit public educator unions.  They are heavily supported by conservative, pro school choice, groups.  They claim that they,
". . .Provide (services) that teachers really do need, but at a fraction of a cost because we don’t get into partisan politics (activities that cost me as a union member around $3 a month).”  They don't collectively bargain, nor do they represent members in grievances, but they do provide limited insurance and other services.  Services that any educator can easily get on their own.  This group recently got some press coverage in a local newspaper under a headline touting them as a "union".  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact that a group that hopes to have 1,000 members by June 2014 merits any coverage is a testimony to the influence of their donors and the anti-union tone of the mainstream media.   

True unions in Wisconsin face an uphill battle, but one that we are committed to continuing through 2014 and beyond. 

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