Friday, May 18, 2012

Go Bucky! Defend the Wisconsin Idea!

I grew up in a home where the University of Wisconsin-Madison held god-like status. My mother and father met in Madison, and I learned to sing “On Wisconsin” long before I could even hum “The Star Spangled Banner.” I and most of my siblings graduated from Madison, and my father-in-law is a UW-Madison soils scientist who spent much of his career traveling the back roads of Wisconsin to talk with farmers.

My husband and I even allowed our children to name the family dog “Bucky Rose,” in honor of the beagle’s liberation from the pound on the day after the Badgers won the Rose Bowl in 1994.

So although the term “The Wisconsin Idea” doesn’t quickly roll off my tongue, I understand the concept in my bones.

As with the Progressive tradition in general, the future of “The Wisconsin Idea” is in the hands of voters as they approach the June 5 recall of Gov. Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Idea, a term coined a century ago, refers to the belief that University of Wisconsin’s expertise should benefit all the people of the state, that government policy should be grounded in sound research, and that a strong system of public education is essential to prosperity.

An outgrowth of the state’s Progressive Movement, The Wisconsin Idea has long been a source of pride and a foundation for excellence. The University of Wisconsin system has a world-class reputation. Wisconsin ACT test scores for high schoolers are among the best in the nation. The UW-Extension, meanwhile, supports lifelong learning and small business initiatives across the state.

Last year, however, Gov. Walker oversaw a state budget that made the deepest cuts to public education in the history of the state. No system or age group was spared. Cuts included the University of Wisconsin system, the state’s technical colleges, and K-12 public school districts large and small.

Should Walker win the recall vote, there is every reason to believe he will continue his budget-cuts against public education. The reasons are financial, political — and ideological.

The Wisconsin State Historical Society defines The Wisconsin Idea this way:

Progressive-era policy to apply the expertise of the state's university to social legislation that benefited all the state's citizens; it led to classic programs such as regulation of utilities, workers' compensation, tax reform, and university extension services; sometimes expressed in the maxim that "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state."

Teddy Roosevelt, in an introduction to a 1912 book that explained The Wisconsin Idea, noted Wisconsin “has become literally a laboratory for wise experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”

An extensive treatise on The Wisconsin Idea in the 1995-96 State of Wisconsin Blue Book went so far as to note, “Wisconsin can be justifiably proud that, despite its average resources and population size, it produced a number of impressive persons, some of them politicians or government workers, most of them professors, who worked together for the common good. That phenomenon is similar to the fortuitous circumstances that spawned the classical culture of Ancient Athens and the concentration of genius in little Florence that created its Renaissance culture.”

It’s hard to imagine why one would condemn The Wisconsin Idea. But the concept is inextricably linked with the Progressive Movement’s policies and its dedication to using government to promote democracy and the common good. What’s more, influential conservatives have never been fond of The Wisconsin Idea’s unequivocal support for public education.

Eighteen years ago, former Bradley Foundation head Michael Joyce wrote a 6-page tirade against the Wisconsin Idea and the Progressive Movement. In particular, he criticized the close relationship between the state university and state government, and condemned the “increasing prominence to the place and function of the public university.”

Joyce’s article, “The Legacy of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’: Hastening the Demise of an Exhausted Progressivism,” was published in the Winter 1994 issue of Wisconsin Interest, published by the conservative think tank The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. (See my May 14 blog for more information and an overview of the conservative attack on Wisconsin’s Progressive tradition.)

Joyce was not just another bit-player in Wisconsin politics. As head of the Bradley Foundation, he wielded significant power, overseeing the purse strings of one of the most influential conservative foundations in the country.

Joyce was known for equating public schools with socialism, and his 1994 article condemned public schools curriculum for “reflecting everything from environmental extremism to virulent feminism.” Under Joyce, the voucher movement that funnels public dollars to private schools became a key focus of the Bradley Foundation — to the tune of around $20 million, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

Joyce left the Foundation in 2001, and Michael Grebe now heads the foundation. (Former CEO of the Foley & Lardner law firm, Grebe chaired Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and is currently chair of “Friends of Scott Walker.”) Grebe is less flamboyant in his rhetoric, and doesn’t go around talking about “virulent feminism.” But support for privatizing public education remains a guiding principle at Bradley.

Under Grebe, the Bradley foundation is continuing its support of the voucher movement, but has branched out into funding semi-private and corporatized charter schools. In the last 10 years, for instance, Bradley has given $16.5 million to the innocuous-sounding Charter School Growth Fund, not including a $5 million line of credit. Based in Colorado, the fund is a venture capital initiative to support charter schools run by corporate Charter Management Organizations. Grebe is on the board of the Charter School Growth Fund.

The fund’s portfolio includes Rocketship Education, a California-based franchise which has received a charter from the City of Milwaukee to open a school next fall and ultimately expand to eight schools. As with vouchers and welfare reform, Wisconsin is being used to test-market and perfect the Bradley Foundation’s conservative projects.

Across the state, the devastation of Walker’s education policies is clear. At the university and technical college level, students increasingly are being asked to pick up the tab and tuition is escalating. At the K-12 level, public money is increasingly be funneled to private schools and to private interests running corporate-style charter schools. 

If you care about your public elementary and high school. If you’re thinking of attending a state technical college. If you respect the University of Wisconsin system. Heck, if you’re a fan of Bucky Badger and the Big Ten — make sure to vote on June 5 and defend The Wisconsin Idea.
— — —
This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

No comments:

Post a Comment