Conservatives and their Republican legend-bearers aren't really pushing for smaller government so much as they are seeking condensed government. By “condensed” I mean a much more authoritarian system where fewer politicians (those same Republicans, ideally) make more of the decisions from the top down. And when they can't get past pesky interference from opponents or other branches of government -- like, you know, independent agencies or cities and counties -- they devise new means of gumming up the works. Or they simply seize power, knowing that they can if necessary take the issue to selected courts packed with conservatives likely to back them up.
Cream of condensed government is standard operating procedure in banana republics, but in the United States of America? We're getting into banana land, and fast. Latest example: The sordid, cynical, powergrabbers who now run Wisconsin state government with an ideological iron fist and no sense of reasoned consideration, much less bipartisanship.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have over the past three years adopted a new way of implementing academic standards for English and mathematics instruction under the nationwide Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core provides more uniformity in curriculum and testing in an effort to better prepare students for college and the real world.
Now, you can argue that Common Core in general, and uniformity in particular, aren't all that they're cracked up to be, and it's even reasonable to question whether Common Core isn't mostly just more of the same old, same old, in that it relies heavily on testing in pursuit of academic progress. But Common Core isn't rigorously uniform: The program allows each state to set up its own means for achieving the standards. Moreover, Common Core was designed to engage teachers, parents, lawmakers and other stakeholders in the process.
Nevertheless, now that years of planning including public hearings and well-aired proposals have been vetted and new standards are going into place in classrooms, some people on the far right are suddenly although inexplicably concerned that Common Core is really some kind of secret federal government takeover – like Obamacare.
In numerous states where the Common Core standards are well into the implementation phase, numerous critics have emerged to question the effort. More and more of them tend to be from the far right and some of those have tried to characterize Common Core as coming from the Obama administration. In reality, Common Core is not a federal program; it has been a state-led effort, championed by the bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
True, some of the critics are not politicians, and raise arguably reasonable issues with Common Core in principle and implementation of it in their states. But the particular disaffection for Common Core that some political conservatives suddenly have discovered in themselves seems at best generalist and knee-jerk, at worst a tactic calculated to serve as red meat in an election year. But sometimes there's even more method to their madness than is readily apparent, as we shall discuss below.
In any case, Common Core is causing a ruckus. But no bigger ruckus than in Wisconsin, once a public education leader thanks to its progressive traditions. These past several years, however, the Badger state has suffocated under a blanket of right-wing Republican rule, showing signs of devolving into the political equivalent of Texas, or something even less savory.
Read on past the orange book mark to see how Wisconsin's current conservative hegemony is angling to use disaffection for Common Core to bolster its own political power.
In Wisconsin, academic standards and other policy relating to public schools long have been vested in the Department of Public Instruction, which is run by a relatively independent superintendent who is elected in statewide elections. The long-held idea behind this arrangement is that education policy should be shielded from too much political interference.
The state's current superintendent of public instruction (one of those "Chief State School Officers" who worked together on Common Core) is Tony Evers, a thoughtful man who has had to contend with constant tinkering by conservative Wisconsin legislators who clearly are most interested in transferring public school funds to private voucher schools, and punishing any public schools that thereafter falter. Indeed, one proposal that's recently been kicked around in the state legislature would mandate that public schools with performance scores in the lowest five percent each year be completely disbanded, no matter the reasons.
But Evers' latest headache is a bill that is blitzkrieging its way through the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature at super speed, a bill apparently designed to extinguish what's left of Wisconsin's education firewall and hand fundamental (I use the word advisedly) public education policy-making power over to the governor and the legislature.
The idea for the legislation only popped up about a month ago when, in a barely noticed speech, Gov. Scott Walker (yes, that Scott Walker) made casual mention of perhaps creating a state commission that would "advise" Evers on academic standards. Boom! In just days, up popped this bill (and from where did the bill's language come, you might ask. Oh, I dunno. Maybe, hmmm..... ALEC?).
Assembly Bill 617 would appoint the state school superintendent to chair a new commission of 10 members. The superintendent would appoint four of the ten. The governor would appoint six. Can you say, “stacked deck,” boys and girls?
Furthermore, the law would essentially do away with Common Core, leaving Wisconsin to find its own way through the academic standards thicket – with, of course, the heavy-handed "advice" of politicians.
The commission would vote on a set of academic standards, not necessarily limited to English and math. These would be turned over to the superintendent who would choose whether to recommend them to a joint legislative committee for approval. But the legislators could disregard his recommendations and instead pick the board's recommendations Some “advisory” capacity, that.
But, as is often the case with Republican lawmaking, it gets worse. Here's how the bill crystallizes what Walker called "advisors." From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The bill calls for members of this board to come from different backgrounds, such as a university professor and school principal, but it also calls for members to be appointed from private voucher schools, even though those private schools receiving taxpayer money are not beholden to follow statewide academic standards for public schools.Thus, if this bill passes both state legislative houses (which seems likely, although the state Senate's slightly more moderate GOP majority may have other thoughts), the foxes will be guarding the hen house. The foxes are made up of two groups: those private schools which, thanks to previous conservative lawmaking, get to dip into Wisconsin public schools for millions of tax dollars but as yet have to face no public accountability to speak of; private schools that would now have direct power to influence cirricula in public schools.
The other group of foxes of course includes the current governor and his political party in the legislature.
So, as Evers rightfully worries, what if a cabal of tea party lawmakers wants creationism to be taught in public schools? Presumably, those lawmakers could get the governor to prevail upon his majority appointees to the "advisory" commission to make that a formal recommendation. The superintendent of public instruction might refuse to submit the recommendation to the legislative committee on the basis that it's anti-science, but the committee by law would be able to overrule him. Just to remind you: That would be the same legislature run by the same political party some of whose members proposed creationism and got mouthpieces on the new “advisory” commission – all appointees of the governor – to recommend it.
A couple of Republican legislators have publicly pooh-poohed concern that any such academic interference could ever happen. And yet the law does seem to allow it. Another reason to be skeptical: Walker originally campaigned for governor saying he wanted to work with public employee unions before he “dropped the bomb” (his words) on them. Also, many public school teachers are unionized, and Walker is simply not on friendly terms with them.
Ironically, the pending legislation would still require a regular statewide student test on whatever academic standards do emerge in Wisconsin, which is a main reason people in other states are concerned about Common Core. What a concept! Replace a standardized test that many people dislike with … another standardized test! That'll fix everything. But of course, the main purpose of this bill isn't to fix anything; it's to grab power.
For his part, Walker has already spoken favorably about the bill, suggesting he would sign it. His explanation? Again, from the Journal Sentinel: "I think Wisconsin standards should be higher than where the discussion is nationally and I think they should be set by people in Wisconsin and not people outside the state, and I think this offers a mechanism to do that." So while a huge majority of other governors are placing their faith in Common Core, Walker is placing his own faith in himself, instead.
Hey, governor, here's a better idea. Quit messing around with local public schools by seeking to amass more direct power over them. Instead, if you truly believe Wisconsin public schools should have higher academic standards than the nation as a whole, return the nearly three billion dollars and more you've already swiped from their budgets. In other words, put your money where your mouth is.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the bill: http://www.jsonline.com/...