“The Wisconsin Idea” in politics – RIP in the 2011 legislature

“The Wisconsin Idea” in politics was pioneered by Robert M. LaFollette Sr.,  leading the Progressive movement for Wisconsin and the nation. The basis of the philosophy is  “to ensure well-constructed legislation aimed at benefitting the greatest number of people.” (Myers, R. David – “The Wisconsin Idea, It’s National and International Significance,” Wisconsin Academy Review(Fall 1991). The ideas originating in Wisconsin included Worker’s Compensation, Primary Elections, State Regulation of Railroads, Direct Election of State Senators, Progressive Taxation, and Public Employee Unions. The Progressive, “Wisconsin Idea” even sparked passage of the Sixteenth (progressive income tax) and Seventeenth (Direct Senatorial Elections)Amendments to the US Constitution. These pieces of legislation were Wisconsin originals, have benefitted a great number of people, and Wisconsin led the way for the nation.

Today, there is not a single original idea in Scott Walker’s budget; nor is there any significant piece of legislation that contains an original Wisconsin idea. Contrary to Scott Walker’s claim to “leading” the nation; he and the Republican-controlled legislature are following the lead of corporate-controlled groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). And there is no evidence of these policies benefitting “the greatest number of people,” to the contrary, the fewest number will benefit. An examination of current Education Bills in committee make this point very well.

Special Needs Scholarship Bill AB 110 proposes state-paid scholarships to special needs students, with the ability to choose any school (public or private) participating in the program. At first glance, this would appear to be a very well-intended bill. The devil is in the details. In brief (read the bill), the bill would take shared revenue out of districts with students participating in the program, if they attend a non-home district school. The bill forces the home district to pay for transport to the choice school (within 5 miles), even to a private school; and beyond 5 miles if so specified in the student’s “Individual Education Plan.” The home district must pay for and administer required tests for students if their choice school does not. The standards of performance for these private “choice schools” are not as stringent as  public schools – even teacher certification requirements are less stringent. Most controversial is the paying of scholarship funds from the state “directly to the school on behalf of the family,” even to a religious private institution. The bill also creates additional opportunity for privatizing school services to agencies with less public accountability, while decreasing state committments to public schools. This bill is sponsored by Rep. Robin Vos, the state chair of ALEC. ALEC has been pushing this agenda of privatization and corporatization for a long time. In 2007, ALEC released a 50 state analysis of education policy, complete with “model legislaton” suggestions for each alec 50stateSCreport. Wisconsin is on page 96, with the following suggestions:

Model Legislation: Parental Choice Scholarship Program (Universal Eligibility), Parental Choice Scholarship Program (Means-Tested Eligibility), Special Needs Scholarship Program, Foster Child Scholarship Program, Autism Scholarship, Great Schools Tax Credit Program, Family Education Tax Credit Program

That’s right, 2007. In fact, the “Foster Child Scholarship” model legislation contains almost identical language and mechanisms as AB110 Foster_Child_Scholarship_Program_Act . In the September 2010 issue of ALEC’s magazine, the group sang the praises of such an initiative in Oklahoma ALEC 10-10 Education issue. Contrary to the cited “study,” the public schools in Oklahoma have seen fiscal harm from this program, as has the student’s performance. The group performing “studies” for ALEC is The Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by Milton Friedman – University of Chicago, “shock doctrine” Milton Friedman. This group knows how to format a study to get the results they want, not what is scientifically and statistically true.

 SB-22 is the expansion of Charter Schools Bill. This is the Senate version of AB51 authored by Robin Vos (ALEC, remember). SB22 is authored by Alberta Darling. Senator Darling is rumored to be an ALEC Legislative Member, but her staff would not confirm this – they did not deny, however. Both Darling and Vos spokespersons confirmed the two worked on the bills simultaeneously, and as one reads AB51, they are virtually identical. The ALEC model legislation from 2005, Great_Schools_Tax_Credit_Act, contains very similar language and mechanisms. Obviously, Robin Vos was paying attention at ALEC Conferences. This bill is no more a Wisconsin idea than any other piece of legislation with ALEC corporate fingerprints. The charter schools bill is merely the legalized privatization of Wisconsin schools at the expense of our great public school system. It continues the financial assualt on public school districts, lowers accountability for charters, while allowing wealthy families to gain access to thousands of dollars in state school aid, once set aside for the neediest families.

At issue is the outpouring of multi-national money and corporate anarchist philosophy into our state’s legislation. The group ALEC  is largely funded by both the Koch Industries, and the Bradley Foundation http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Legislative_Exchange_Council (also see bdgrdemocracy previous blogs re Greater Milwaukee Committee, Smart Government, Inc, and Foley and Lardner). Both these ultra- conservative groups have taken a vested interest in undoing nearly a century of Progressive politics -not for the benefit of the “greatest number” of people, but for the fewest elite. With the dismantling of the Wisconsin Public school model, legislators like Alberta Darling and Robin Vos have continued the systematic assualt on “The Wisconsin Idea.” If you think the need for mass protests are over – think again. They may just be starting. Don’t let the Wisconsin Idea die – it has to live in all of us, to lead the nation out of this second coming of the “Robber Baron” era.


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