The past few months have given us the GOP war on women, my personal war with backyard rabbits, the IRS’ war on conservative non-profits, and now the Wisconsin GOP’s war on Milwaukee. Can we cool it with the “war on” talk? It has become a bad cliché.
I wrote recently that I do not think Scott Walker hates Milwaukee. I still believe that. Before Walker was elected I thought it was great that two Milwaukee area executives were running for Governor. During the Act 10 drama I was convinced that Walker’s experience running a local government was a major factor in his desire to curtail collective bargaining. I am still convinced of that.
However, there is something rotten about the relationship between the Wisconsin GOP and Milwaukee. I won’t call it a war, but a disconnect. The most obvious disconnect is ideological. The party in control in Madison has no political base in Milwaukee; it is not surprising or disturbing that when the interests of urban areas clash with those of suburban and rural areas, the interests of the GOP’s core constituency wins out.
But try to imagine the from Milwaukee. Despite its popular support, the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), both large middle-class employers, view school vouchers as a threat. The Governor is seeking to expand this threat, which is naturally perceived as an attack on Milwaukee.
Or consider the residency rule. Tom Barrett worries that it will cause middle-class residents to leave the city. MPS has already modified its residency rule, in an act of local control, to allow more time for new teachers to move to the city. It’s easy to see the residency rule as an attack on personal freedom, but the mayor and others have a legitimate interest in maintaining a middle-class tax base. Hence, we have another attack on Milwaukee’s self-determination.
And of course the streetcar. Suburban interests have a legitimate fear that they will end up paying for the thing in one way or another. But Milwaukee institutions (and many residents) view the streetcar as a next logical step forward for the City of Milwaukee. It is not surprising at all that efforts to kill the streetcar, whatever its merits, based on technicalities is seen by many as outside meddling for the sake of meddling.
I am an urbanist at heart and admit I have a strong bias towards the City of Milwaukee. It is where I live. But even an unbiased observer can see that the disconnect between Milwaukee and the GOP is more than just whining by the Mayor. It is the product (among other things) of an unhealthy political reality that makes our urban areas, at least in terms of elected representation, politically homogeneous places.
Whose fault is this political homogeneity? I don’t know and I don’t really care. Even without an urban constituency the state GOP still has an economic and cultural interest in creating pro-urban policies.
Milwaukee is not some black hole. It is as place where over 10% of the state’s population resides. It is true Milwaukee receives a good amount of state resources. However, the distribution of state dollars to Milwaukee is not absurdly out of whack given its size. For example, in 2012 MPS received 13% of all state equalization aid while enrolling 10% of all public school students.
I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that pitting Milwaukee against the rest of the state is a losing proposition for both sides. Milwaukee is a real place with real people of real importance to all Wisconsinites. It shouldn’t be used as a political football.
When it comes to local government my bias is towards local control. I initially opposed the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) a few years back because of this bias. Why go out of your way to eliminate or limit representative democracy at any level of government?
Though I never changed my position on mayoral control of MPS I did soften it as the debate unfolded. If the mayor or someone else offered a compelling alternative that promised to better fulfill the mission of MPS, I as a Milwaukee citizen needed to at least consider it. No compelling alternative moved me in that particular debate.
Which brings me to the current debate over the pay and status of the Milwaukee County Board. Admittedly my interaction with the County Board consists of a single pleasant conversation with by Board Supervisor, Jason Haas, as he initially campaigned door-to-door for his seat. Though I am certain we differ on many points, it was clear Mr. Haas cared a great deal about the community, which struck me as the most important attribute for a representative in local government. The question posed by Chris Abele and others is whether Mr. Haas and his colleagues should continue to receive full-time pay?
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state legislature is considering legislation to ask Milwaukee County voters, via referendum, whether to reduce Milwaukee County Supervisors to part-time status, and lower their annual salary from about $50,000 to $15,000 a year (plus eliminate their benefits).
There seems to be a legitimate argument from both sides of the fence on this one. Supporters of a full-time board argue that cutting the salary and benefits will prevent anyone but the wealthy from running for a board seat because $15,000 annually is not enough to live on. Proponents of a part-time board argue that money currently spent on board salaries and benefits would better be used on county services.
I am not sure where I land on this one. But I am interested to know where Milwaukee County residents stand on the issue of a referendum; are people concerned about the full-time board? I also need one of the sides to offer a compelling answer to the simple crucial question: Is the position of Milwaukee County Supervisor a full-time position? Does it require 40+ hours a week? It seems to me the side with the best answer to that question is the side that ought to win.
So earlier this year I received a flu shot. Today I have the flu. What gives? I demand answers! More accurately, my wife, who finds herself today responsible for the care of a third larger, crankier, 30 year-old child with less hair, demands answers. Because I am a fun guy to talk to at parties, my failed flu shot naturally got me thinking about the topic of policy failure.
After all, a flu shot is something like a policy response. Public policies generally are created to address problems, and flu shots are merely a pre-emptive action against an annual public health problem. Perhaps flu shots even represent the way many talking heads wish public policy were made. The annual flu vaccine is not a created through a political process, but rather, according to the National Institute for Health (NIH), by a panel of experts which selects the three strands of flu to be included in the next year’s vaccine.
In other words smart technocrats gather and decide what is best for the public. Sound familiar? It’s not all that different than current calls for a non-partisan redistricting panel, or for the selection of merit-judges. As the progressive argument goes, if we could take the politics out of public policy, we would have better public policy. We need technocrats with expertise, not politicians with agendas.
I am reminded of a ridiculous book I read a few years back titled the “The New Lion of Damascus” which hailed Syrian President Bashar al-Asad as a benign technocrat merely seeking to guide Syria into the international community at a pace acceptable to its citizens. Whoops. I suppose the benign label was dropped as soon as the technocrat’s power was threatened.
The al-Asad example is extreme, but my flu-clouded point here is that solving complex policy problems is a lot harder than gathering smart caring people into a room to address a problem. I often write about urban education, a field flooded with smart caring people who cannot seem to fix urban education. Maybe politics, for all its ugliness and incivility, serves the vital function of slowing down the policy process so that one group of experts’ one-best way is not unilaterally imposed on those who happen to disagree.
Which brings me back to my ineffectual flu shot. Seems the experts got it wrong. Should we overhaul the process, hold hearings, and demand accountability? Perhaps I should run for Congress on a platform of better flu vaccines. Or, perhaps, I should thank the technocrats at the NIH for annually crafting flu vaccines that have helped me avoid the flu for 29 of the 30 years of my existence. Or, perhaps, I should just go back to bed.
Last December I wrote “[m]y hope for next year is that the state can get past the bitter divisions of 2011.” Did we? Well, the actual gubernatorial recall campaign felt like any run-of-the-mill political horse race. Our state still has its divisions, but perhaps we dropped a little of the bitterness so present during the events leading up to the recall. Progress!
Since I copped out last year by offering the vague hope for less division, this year I will offer a few specific things I’d like to see in 2013:
1. An increase in revenue limits for school districts. Governor Walker indicated in press accounts that some money will be available for education in the next budget. This is good news. However, it is important that per-pupil revenue limits, which cap how much districts can actually spend, increase at a reasonable rate after the last budget’s cut (in year 1) and modest increase (year 2). In other words, the competing goals of providing classrooms with more resources and property tax relief must be balanced.
2. An independent charter school authorizer outside of southeast Wisconsin. The failed Madison Prep proposal illustrated the need for a responsible non-district charter school authorizer approving schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine. Such an authorizer would be a vehicle for unique schools with the potential to add-value in Wisconsin communities even if districts are resistant.
3. A renewed discussion on mining. Reasonable discussion of the merits of the failed Gogebic mining proposal was derailed last spring by recall politics. I do not claim to be an expert on mining, but I have to believe a more substantive discussion of whether the benefit of 600+ jobs can be balanced against environmental concerns is possible this year.
4. Plans for a new stadium in Milwaukee. Probably the least likely to happen of the items on my list. Simply, Milwaukee is better off with the Bucks (and with a major modern entertainment venue) than without, and Wisconsin is better off when its largest city is better off.
Finally, I will offer one vague wish for 2013: Respect in politics and in political debate. I’d love to see civility, but I get that politics is charged, and civility on the floor of the Assembly or Senate is no more likely than civility in the blogosphere. However, that does not mean people cannot recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s positions, and even respect the reasons for those positions. Such respect is necessary for a 50/50 state like Wisconsin to prosper both economically and civically. And with that, Happy New Year.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin wrote a thoughtful piece last week on the need for improvement in Madison Schools. Soglin proposes several logical steps such as increasing community engagement, childhood education, and efforts to address poverty. Unfortunately the Mayor dismisses charter schools out of hand, writing:
“We are not interested in the development of new charter schools.”
Considering the ugly battle over Madison Prep, Soglin’s reluctance may be a logical desire to avoid a divisive issue. Call it a hangover effect. But Soglin goes further in making his case against charter schools;
“I have come to three conclusions about charter schools. First, the national evidence is clear overall, charter schools do not perform as well as traditional public schools. Second where charter schools have shown improvement, generally they have not reached the level of success of Madison schools. Third, if our objective is to improve overall educational performance, we should try proven methods that elevate the entire district not just the students in charter schools.”
First, the evidence is far from clear that charter schools trail traditional public schools in performance. But that is not the point. Soglin’s position is based on the belief that charter schools should be judged as a homogeneous group. They shouldn’t.
The premise of the charter model is individual school accountability for performance. If a charter school proposal does not add value, it is not authorized. If a charter school does not produce results, it is closed. Granted this does not always work perfectly in practice, but it is a worthy ideal nonetheless.
Accordingly, no sane policy maker (or advocate) would argue that putting every Madison student in a charter school would magically increase overall district performance. However, well-planned charter schools seeking to serve underperforming students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), like the failed Madison Prep, could add significant value precisely because of Soglin’s third point.
If the Mayor wants “proven methods that elevate the entire district,” charters may be his best option. Decades of failed attempts across the country make clear no single curriculum or intervention will work for every student in a district as diverse in its needs as Madison. In other words, there is no one best way to deliver K-12 education. Charters offer a model where schools can be independent, responsive to the localized needs of students and parents, and accountable for results. I suppose it is possible that MMSD could build such a system without using charters, but why not consider all options?
Last week, when writing about the topic of grading schools, I made an offhand comment stating that failing school voucher programs are bad public policy. I believe this to be the case for many reasons, mostly because of my preferred answer to one big question: Is school choice a life raft, or an education reform?
First, what is a failing school voucher program? The most prominent example is the Ohio EdChoice program, which allows students attending Ohio public schools deemed failing for a number of years to use a voucher to attend a participating private school. Like the parent trigger, failing school vouchers have an obvious appeal to legislators. Who could be against allowing students to leave a bad school?
The problem with failing school vouchers lies in the basic premise, and the specifics. The premise assumes that vouchers are a life raft for kids stuck in failing schools. Fine, but giving students a voucher is a 50% solution. Of course getting a student out of a broken school is good. However, merely giving a student a voucher is no guarantee that his or her performance will improve. Simply attending a private school does not mean the student will be in a better place.
As problematic, the reasons vouchers can be good policy are undermined by failing school voucher programs. For example, a voucher program can attract outside operators (new schools) that are well positioned to meet the unique needs of certain students. However, it is unlikely new operators will be created by a failing school voucher program. There is too much uncertainty around what pupils can be attracted to a new school to take the risk of opening. What happens if a school sets up shop and suddenly the public schools from which it draws is removed from the failing list? The school will likely not survive.
The problem is similar for existing schools. As long-time successful school operators in Milwaukee can attest, participating in a voucher program will change a school’s culture, and by necessity, its operations. A school would be foolish to significantly change to serve a population that may suddenly lose access to their school.
School choice programs work when they create an environment where schools are responsive to the needs of families and communities, free to innovate, and held accountable for results. In other words, they work when they are well designed to be vehicles for positive change in a community. Programs fail when policy-makers assume the mere act of choice will guarantee success. The latter is the premise of failing school vouchers. Though such programs allow for appealing rhetoric, true education reform demands more.
As the whole world knows by now, David Corn of Mother Jonesprocured secret video footage of a private Romney fundraiser that captures the candidate in an unusually perturbing and candid light. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president [Obama] no matter what,” Romney declared. He went on to declare that these entitled folks feel themselves to be victims, and the coup de grâce, that “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” He simply writes off skeptical voters, and with that, forfeits any pretense of uniting a country that so desperately needs it after President Obama’s failure to do so.
I want to suggest a better line of rhetoric for the GOP than the brash mention of those who do not pay income taxes and the extolling of individual responsibility by “pulling yourself up from your bootstraps.” The GOP would do well to take a small lesson in political theory, particularly in social contract theories. In past eras, it was far easier to implore conservatives to heed the advice of their best political and historical minds. Alas, today this is not so. Yet, I believe that reopening the pages of the great conservative Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) could help salvage much of the GOP’s rhetoric from a disastrous inability to connect with American voters.
Burke’s concept of the social contract is an intergenerational one. It is staunchly against the explicitly “statist” contracts of Rousseau or Locke and Hobbes before him. In these statist models, the people come together laterally and agree to the formation of a state and sovereign with limited, and often times enumerated powers. Burke’s contract ignores largely the state, focusing instead on “partnership” between generations. He says:
“One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is, lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters, that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers.”
Quite simply, society is a contract. “The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Precisely where the GOP could earn points, especially with young and middle-aged voters often skeptical of their policies, is in explicating the profound transfers of fiscal burden that entitlement programs represent, and the shocking and unprecedented betrayal of Burke’s “societal partnership” between generations of the present and the future. (Professor Niall Ferguson suggested just this in his recent BBC Reith Lectures.) The most important remedy the GOP may offer is a solution to restoring the social contract between generations, a flaw of democracy that worried deeply that most observant and trenchant of commentators on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Aristocrats think and operate with a sense of their ancestors and their bloodlines, he said, while citizens of democracies live entirely and dangerously in the present.
The United States’ national debt is symptomatic of something that is terribly awry with our current representative government, i.e., decision-making ceased long ago to have any temporal frame of reference whatsoever. No notion of future generations exists, precisely because they are not represented; lacking Burke’s vision of the social contract, it is too easy to defer difficult decisions in the present and pass the bill to a future generation not yet represented. Ferguson hits the nail on the head in one of his lectures: “a pretty blithe disregard for the legacy of the past characterizes, it seems to me, a great many legislators. But perhaps more seriously, a real neglect of the interests of future generations…and that’s really the problem.” Representative government must operate with a greater sense of continuity between generations.
Best yet, such a line of rhetoric could appeal to a broad base of the American public, not just in terms of age but also across political parties. The GOP could earn electoral credentials with conservatives by presenting credible (and specific) plans to preserve and save entitlement programs for future generations; the GOP would need to defend these proposals from demagoguery for electoral gain by arguing that such an approach is a reckless path to bankruptcy. But the Burkean social contract rhetoric could also appeal to many Democrats and Independents who worry about the increasing fissures between the wealthy and not so wealthy. It is no wonder, many of them would say (not unreasonably), that there is no social contract between generations of Americans when wealth inequality has risen to an unprecedented level. The daily routines of some Americans make it almost impossible for them to sympathize with the long-term interests of other Americans once their kith, as Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart. In all, the GOP would do well to revisit the political thought of their great thinkers like Edmund Burke, and there was once a time when such obvious statements could go unstated.
I was a sophomore in college on September 11, 2001.
I woke up at 7:30 that Tuesday morning, put on my old Cubs hat, and walked across the campus to my composition course. I still remember the lesson, we were discussing the various types of citation styles, Chicago style, MLA, etc. The class began at 8:15, 8:48 passed and went. Incredibly bored, I stared at the clock and finally got out at 9:30.
Like I did every Tuesday and Thursday, I went to the Villanova University student union for breakfast. The union has dozens of televisions that broadcast the news, sports, and other programming at all times. By 9:30 all of those televisions were tuned to CNN, or the local news. But the only sign I saw that something was amiss was a curious comment from Andreas Bloch.
Bloch was a German member of the basketball team; he had a nice shot but was not overly impressive on the court. My only relevant memory of him was on 9/11. As I walked through the union I overheard Bloch saying something to the tune of “something hit the World Trade Center.”
My first thought was to dismiss the comment. If something significant had happened I would have seen it on CNN.com earlier that morning. Nonetheless, I made my way back to by dorm room to turn on my T.V.
Walking to my building, there was little to indicate that there was anything wrong. It was a crisp, beautiful fall day. I entered my tiny room, turned on my tiny T.V. and immediately saw the helicopters flying around the north tower. It was a close-up shot, and the announcers on CNN had already concluded that it was an act of terror, and were speculating on who would do this.
Like everyone else I was stunned, and remained stunned as the events of the days unfolded one after another. That night I, along with most of the campus, attended a prayer service at the Pavilion (Villanova’s on-campus stadium). On the way home the skies were quiet. Except for the occasional formation of A-10’s flying up and down the east coast, the skies would remain quiet for days.
The next morning I woke up, checked CNN to see if the day before really happened, and went for a run. I was astounded by all the American flags. They were everywhere.
I don’t write this because I think my experience on 9/11 was especially profound or unique. I am sure most can remember that day in minute detail; it was one of those rare moments where every American shared a collective experience. I am sure most remember the fear and confusion in the months and years following 9/11 as well. Because the unfathomable had happened, Americans naturally wondered what other unimaginable thing could come next.
Most memorable to me, however, was the unity that an attack on our own soil, our own unique nation, brought. Eleven years later the oft-dysfunctional and hyper-partisan reality of our politics has returned, yet the United States (and of course Wisconsin) remains an idea more important than any political party or agenda.
The idea that all people have the right to live as they see fit as long as they respect others rights to their opinions and lifestyles is, to me, the idea that was attacked on that Tuesday morning. It is an idea that is worth remembering and reflecting upon on this sad anniversary.
I did not wake up Monday morning expecting to purchase diabetic socks, a pulled pork sandwich, and suspiciously inexpensive “officially licensed” Brewers and Packers merchandise. Nor did I expect to take a two-question test to determine if I was going to heaven while drinking a High Life tallboy. Ok, I did not actually do these things Monday. But I could have, and all in one place: The St. Martins Fair.
For those who have not been, the St. Martins Fair is a bazaar held throughout the summer that becomes a bloated mile-long street festival on Labor Day weekend. It is overflowing with diversity, that one the thing that, to paraphrase the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, makes a place exciting and successful.
My wife, a veteran of the fair, failed to give our two sons and me fair warning of what we were walking into. It looked like Woodstock as we drove in among an eclectic mix of families, teenagers, and let’s just say interesting dressed folks holding something in beer cozies at 10:30 am walking down the side of road. I learned shortly thereafter they were walking to avoid paying five dollars to park directly below a sign that read “Park at Your Own Risk.” Having already paid the fee, I decided to risk it.
The fair itself is one part state fair, one part flea market, and one part Hamsterdam (for those familiar with The Wire.) The commercial diversity was striking. Sporting goods, clothes, art, furnaces, reflective vests, antiques, games (wooden for hip young urbanites and dusty used games from the 80s for hipper young urbanites), and just about anything else you would ever want, or likely, not want. But it was not just goods being hawked. A booth in front of the non-denominational Christian church spread its message by giving away free bottled water on the hot day. Another religious booth chose the more intense strategy of offering the aforementioned quiz that promises to reveal your fate in the afterlife.
The latter booth prompted the hilarious sight of a man opening a beer while declining to find out if he was going to heaven, stating, “I’m already there.” He was just the beginning. While pricing a 2006 Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl Champion beach towel I overheard two middle-aged women bemoaning the younger generations affinity for the halter-top. Another woman, clearly a mother, chastised the owner of a booth for selling children replica AK-47s that shot soft pellets. More broadly, the frequent sight of people from all walks of life enjoying the simple accessible pleasures of a cold beer and a cigarette on a summer afternoon gave me faith that sin taxes will long remain reliable sources of state revenue.
The one notably missing type of diversity at the Fair was, to the event’s detriment, racial. Aside from a few Hmong farmers selling produce it was a very white crowd. Nonetheless, I think the fair would have made Jane Jacobs proud. People were talking, eating, shopping, and most of all people watching. In other words, it was the unique event where attendees were both audience and entertainer.
The Fair was well worth the risk to my car, which made it home just fine. The whole day was a reminder that it is the mix of people, interests, and beliefs that makes not only the St. Martins Fair, but Wisconsin, a great place to live. The legislature would be wise to remember the value of Wisconsin’s diversity when it gets back to business after the fall elections. Homogeneity in our politics and our public policy approaches (like our communities) leaves too many fruitful and interesting doors closed. Plainly, our state’s politics ought to be as diverse and welcoming as our people.
“Good bye to 1/2 of the black representation in Wisconsin’s [legislature] and the progress of my elders”
The above quote comes from Sen. Lena Taylor’ Facebook page. Race certainly played a prominent role in Milwaukee’s spring primary. Yesterday’s results guarantee that for the next two years the Milwaukee delegation will be less racially diverse than the city’s population as a whole. Two white candidates, Sandy Pasch and Evan Goyke, prevailed in minority majority assembly districts.
Does this matter? There is research out there on political representation (see this study by Melissa J. Marshall for example) showing that Black and Hispanic constituencies have higher government satisfaction levels when represented by Black and Hispanic officials. I also agree with Sen. Taylor that, given our nation’s sordid racial past, the paucity of minorities in the state legislature is troubling. However, both Pasch and Goyke were elected by their constituents. If residents of the 10th and 18th Assembly District have problems with Pasch and Goyke they can vote them out in 2014.
Narrative 2: The Purge
Jason Fields and Peggy Krusick are both veteran Milwaukee politicians, and both lost to challengers from the left. A look at their records show both Fields and Krusick to be reliable Democratic voices, however their willingness to buck party orthodoxy on school choice and voter ID respectively became issues in the primary campaign. If this narrative is correct, expect to see less voting disunity within the Milwaukee caucus.
Narrative 3: The Power Struggle
South side Sen. Chris Larson endorsed Sandy Pasch, Nikiya Harris, Mandela Barnes, and Evan Goyke in Milwaukee primaries. All won. North side Sen. Lena Taylor endorsed Millie Coby, Elizabeth Coggs, and Jason Fields in Milwaukee primaries. All lost. The active participation of Taylor and Larson and the victory of Larson’s preferred candidates suggest he is now the most powerful member of the Milwaukee legislative delegation. No doubt the prospect of Chris Larson being a successor to Gwen Moore in Congress just became more realistic.
Narrative 4: A Message to National School Choice Advocates
The national American Federation for Children was involved in supporting Jason Fields, Millie Colby, Jarrett Fields, Elizabeth Coggs, and Tracy Dent. All five candidates lost after the involvement of the organization itself became a prominent campaign issue. The disconnect between Milwaukee public opinion on school choice and the position of Milwaukee elected officials suggest school choice is not the deciding issue for many voters. Still, the future involvement of national school choice advocates in Milwaukee elections is something to watch.