Monday, March 28, 2011


Why does everything have to be so complex? Why couldn't we have some more black vs. white or right vs. wrong?

I just returned from testifying at the school board meeting. I'm not known for my estimating abilities, but I'd say there were over 110 people there who spoke. At least 100 people spoke in favor of a particular charter school. I think there were only 5 or 6 of us who spoke against it.

That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Don't get me wrong, I speak at school board meetings regularly. I think the school board members see me and think "oh no, not her again." But tonight was different. I was shaking in my shoes.

The charter school in question was a charter school for disadvantaged African American boys. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is a cause near and dear to my heart. I've been a "Big Sister" to some amazing African American young ladies for over 20 years. I've lobbied the board over and over and over again to provide MORE resources to our minority and low-income students. I enthusiastically send my kids to an amazing public school in which minorities are the majority and 70% of the kids receive free/reduced lunch.

But - the way they wanted to structure this charter school was troublesome. In Madison we have "instrumentality" and "non-instrumentality" charter schools. "Instrumentality" means that the Board of Education has some jurisdiction over the school. They get some authority over the administration of the school. "Non-instrumentality" is essentially a private school. (But one that gets public money.)

So, I had a decision to make. Here is a charter school that serves a population that I have devoted a great portion of my time/energy to help. Every single speaker tonight struck a chord within my core. They spoke the truth. There *is* a huge achievement gap within our school district. I know, I see it on a daily basis.

But....this particular school is a procedural example of everything I feel is wrong in the education reform movement. I firmly believe that the proposals in front of Wisconsin for expanded vouchers and charters (SB22 and the other bills) will completely destroy our public education system.

So, I stood up.

I asked them to keep their ideas and innovation and enthusiasm and to channel it into an "instrumentality" charter school. Yes, that would require more bureaucracy and it will certainly take longer. But it would be available to every single student - not just the ones who won the charter-school-lottery. You see, the kids I have fallen madly in love with don't even have the resources to apply to the charter school. Some of their parents don't speak English. Others don't have parents who are involved. Still others are homeless. A charter school lottery will certainly help a small population. But it won't help everyone.

The board voted 6-1 in favor of the charter school. Marj Passman was the one board member who seemed to share my concerns.

I spent most of yesterday at a marathon school budget meeting. I can honestly say this was the first budget meeting in which I witnessed grown men cry. Yes, the budget situation in WI under Walker is that dire. The superintendent at one of the districts was describing some of the budget cuts his staff would be taking (20% pay cuts, layoff, etc.) and he started to cry.

So, of course, I started to cry too. I'm still crying tonight. But tomorrow morning, I will get up again, and start the fight again. Our country NEEDS public education and I refuse to give up.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I am generally an optimistic, glass-half-full kind of person. It takes me a long time to distrust or dislike someone or something, in general. I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. I am often mocked for being gullible or naive. (And I am. Both gullible and naive. I admit it.)

So, I'm having a really hard time with this one:

On Monday, Bill Cronon published an amazing Op-Ed in the New York Times. My favorite part is this paragraph:

"Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him."

Note that he says that Walker is NOT McCarthy.

So what does Walker do? He files an open records request to get access to Cronon's emails.

What???? Here we have a very intelligent UW professor who disagrees with our current government in a well-written Op-Ed but has done NOTHING WRONG. Our state is now allowed to read our emails for the simple reason that we disagree with the Gov.? Really? Can they do that?

Cronon's blog is worth a read for the full story.
Jay Bullock has more on his blog, Folkbum.

Scott Walker may be the one who succeeds in turning me into a cynical pessimist. Please tell me that this stuff isn't happening all over the country. Please tell me that Walker is an anomaly.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Charters and Vouchers and Testing, oh my.

With all the events going on around the world this month, my dad has been calling and singing Kingston Trio lyrics to me:

They're rioting in Africa, there's strife in Iran.
What nature doesn't do to us, will be done by our fellow man.

If anyone knows the extent of what nature can do to us, it is my master-of-disaster father. (He also knows more obscure song-lyrics from the 1950s than anyone else I know...)

The news about what nature can do has been absolutely horrifying this week.

I didn't think the "fellow-man" news could get worse for education in Wisconsin after seeing the nearly $900 million cut to K-12 education in Walker's budget. But boy was I wrong. Welcome to SB-22.

  • Creates a 9-person authorizing board for charter schools: 3 appointed by the governor, 3 by the senate majority leader, and 3 by the speaker of the assembly.

  • Changes current law that limits organizations to opening only one charter school. SB 22 permits one organization or company to open multiple charter schools which allows non- and for-profit franchised Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) to enter Wisconsin.

  • Modifies teacher licensure requirements so that teachers in charters do not need certification.

  • Lifts cap on and promotes virtual (online) charter schools
Lining up right behind SB-22 is an upcoming bill on vouchers, to divert education money from public schools to private schools.

At first glance, this looks great, right? More charter schools! More innovation! What's not to like?

There's a lot not to like:
  • The charter School authorizing board circumnavigates the local school districts, limits legislative oversight and allows Walker’s cronies, who have no experience in education, to make influential decisions about schools.

  • There simply isn't data to support that charter schools, in and of themselves, are better than public schools. There are good charter schools. And bad charter schools. Stanford has lots of research worth reading here.

  • I'm still reading all the info, but I have yet to find any good information on how the charter school/voucher plan will serve special education or English language learners. It is really expensive to serve these populations and they don't always have high scores on standardized tests. If we move to a system that is run solely by efficiency and measurable results, it could have devastating consequences for many of our students.
The one up-side to all of this horrid budget news is that I have met some of the most incredible people as we organize to oppose the destruction of public education in Wisconsin. Last night, I met an amazing group of young women who started Public Schools for the Public Good - a great website for the latest news on education, both locally and nationally.

Stay tuned. This isn't over. Across the political spectrum, the citizens of Wisconsin value public education and we will not let Scott Walker destroy it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Wisconsin

It is really hard to find the right words to describe today. Lots and lots of people came together to stand up for the rights of Wisconsin's working people. It was the largest rally yet. The day started with a tractor parade around the Capitol. Farm families came from all over the state and brought their tractors with them.

I have had the pleasure of working with many members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. They are good, good people. Many (most?) are conservative. But they will be badly hurt by the proposed budget. Under the proposed budget, rural Wisconsin communities will see their school districts destroyed, as the cuts to Badgercare and the earned income credit further decimate their standard of living.

This afternoon, there was another huge rally as the 14 Democratic Senators returned to Madison. I understand there were some celebrities around, as well, but the people of Wisconsin only wanted to hear from the Fab 14. My kids were spellbound as they spoke. (well, until we got cold and ducked into Capitol Kids for a warm-up break. It is still very much winter here in WI!)

It's also hard to describe the absolute diversity of the people out today. People in wheelchairs. The elderly. Small babies. Students. Trash collectors. Teachers. Firefighters. People with signs in Spanish. Union members. Private sector. People with dreadlocks. A woman in a fur coat and high heels. Teenagers on stilts. Truck drivers in leather. All races, all ages, both genders.

We've been here for 15 years now and up until today, I have continued to refer to DC as "home." Just yesterday I said, "Oh, at home, we start to get nice weather in March."

But I think it is safe to say that from this moment on, the only place that will ever be home for me again is Madison, Wisconsin. I have never been more proud to consider myself a Wisconsinite. I even bought Davis a cheesehead hat today. Thank you Wisconsin.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We're not crazy left-wing liberals, really, we're not.

Now that we've made national news (I think we were above the Charlie Sheen stories this morning!) - I've seen a few news stories categorizing the protesters in Madison as being extreme liberals.

I'm the first to admit that we've got plenty of lefties here in Madison. Many of them are my best friends. But there are a bunch of us who are just left-of-center out there protesting too. I can hardly be described as fringe - we live around the corner from the Governor's mansion. (My daughter worried what we would do if his sons joined the neighborhood swim team this summer and I assured her we would be polite and civil.)

I'm more upset about the process and political tactics than I am about some parts of the bill. I expected Walker would try to cut both taxes and spending - he gets to do that. We did elect him. (I even agree with some of the provisions of his bill.)

You have to understand that the Governor in Wisconsin is a very powerful man. We have the "Vanna White" veto - otherwise know as the partial-item veto. Both Thompson and Doyle were notorious for their use of this power. With it, they can take out individual words or letters to change any sentence to their liking. They can pretty much do whatever the hell they want.

So, Walker simply did not have to act in the power-grabbing way he did. He did not have to attempt to ram this through the legislature in 5 days. He did not have to have the Fitzgerald brothers hold middle-of-the night votes in the Assembly or 2-hour-notice votes with the Senators.

Our next biennial budget doesn't start until July. He had plenty of time to let the Assembly and the Senate debate this bill. He had plenty of time to allow journalists to write about it and citizens to protest. (or not.)

The thing is - here in Wisconsin, government works pretty well. Not perfect, but well.

Our schools are good. Our roads are plowed to a standard unlike anything I saw on the east coast. Our buses are on time. Our DMV is actually run by competent, friendly people. Our University system is excellent. Our parks are numerous and well kept. Our police and firefighters are respected. Our children all have healthcare, regardless of income. We even plow our ice-skating rinks on a daily basis during the month of January. There is a lot right with the public sector in Wisconsin. (Again, not perfect...but good enough.)

That is why I think he rushed this through with the political tricks. I think he realized that if he gave people enough time to think, they'd say, "It may not be perfect - but I like our highly functioning public sector here in Wisconsin."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Things got interesting in Madison tonight

For the last few weeks, my son and I have spent Wednesday nights up at the Capitol. My daughter has tap class, so we drop her off and head down to join the protesters for a bit.

Tonight, we decided not to go. Tap class was canceled due to a scheduling conflict, so we all changed into our PJs early, and curled up with our books in front of the fire for a relaxing night.

As I was making dinner, my Twitter account was going nuts. "Come to the Capitol IMMEDIATELY" messages at every turn. I ignored them - how urgent could it be? The news yesterday led me to believe that a compromise was coming. The Fab 14 had been communicating with the Governor's office. Although the media made it sound divisive - certainly that means that some progress was being made. Right?

But then Facebook started taking off, so I turned on the WisconsinEye cable channel to watch the Senate proceedings. It wasn't like anything interesting could possibly happen, but I figured I should have it on while I made dinner.

All of a sudden - holy shit - I was brought back to the evening of the Assembly Vote, when I watched the Assembly Republicans railroad the budget repair bill through at 1:30 a.m. on a ambush vote. (Yes, I stayed up to watch it.) The Republican Senators did the same thing tonight - they separated the Collective Bargaining provisions from the financial part of the bill and rammed it through.

Basically, they took the part that NO ONE likes (union busting) and approved it. The part that most people will accept (financial concessions from public sector workers) is still out there. It really makes no sense.

By now, dinner was burnt to a crisp, but I managed to scoop it out and tell my children that "this is what democracy tastes like" and we wolfed down the food and piled in the car to head downtown.

It was really amazing down there. The inner ring of the Capitol was full of a slow parade of cars, honking their horns in a chanting rhythm. People were in the building and circling around the outside.

We know that the atmosphere was a bit more angry tonight than in days past when we saw a few people walking clockwise. Anyone who has spent any time in Madison knows the drill: whether it is the farmer's market or an art fair or a 100K person protest: We walk counter-clockwise around the Capitol. We just do.

Things could start to get very interesting...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bad, bad teacher

The problem with education, according to most of the education-reform articles I'm reading, is the following:

1) bad teachers
2) strong unions who protect those bad teachers

The solution most often proposed seems to be charter schools that don't need to answer to the teachers union. Megan McArdle (via 11d) wants to be able to fire all the teachers. (Rhode Island, evidently, is a big fan of hers.)

Am I missing something? In my entire experience in the Madison public school system, we have yet to run into a bad teacher. Most of the time, we have amazing rock-star teachers. The kind of teachers who change your life. Is Madison an anomaly? Is the rest of the country dealing with bad teachers?

Seriously, I can't talk about our teachers without getting rather emotional. They go above-and-beyond their job description on a daily basis. Last weekend, one of our amazing teachers spent her entire Saturday taking our school's spelling bee champion to the district competition because our school winner couldn't get there on her own. Almost all of our teachers do this stuff ALL THE TIME.

Our school serves a low income population, (67% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch) so perhaps we attract a more dedicated professional. (Although conventional wisdom in the media often spouts that poor schools like ours get dumped with the so-called bad-teachers.)

I don't see the bad-teacher problem. Am I missing something?

My favorite school-board blogger, Ed Hughes had a great post about teachers today. And the NYTimes had a scary article about how we measure a good teacher.

I'm worried that the conservative education "reform" movement (and I include our President in that group) is creating a problem that doesn't exist in order to promote the solution they'd like to see: the privatization of education.

Am I living in a bubble? Is Madison that far from the norm? Do you all really have bad teachers? (And if you do, may I recommend that you move to Madison - our teachers are pretty damn amazing.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Anyone still out there?

Wow, haven't posted anything for two years. I blame Facebook and Twitter and an increased desire to keep my kids' lives more private.

Recent events in my hometown of Madison have prompted me to start up again, at least for the short term. I think my Facebook friends are probably getting a bit annoyed by all my political posts. And there is truly only so much one can put in 140 characters on Twitter.

But I honestly probably would have kept my thoughts to Twitter if it weren't for the dinner conversation tonight. We took our "little" out to dinner. I missed the last two weeks with her due to my knee surgery, so it was our first time to catch-up on recent events.

She didn't know.

She didn't know that the Governor and the President both have bills on their desks that will take away:
1) her health insurance
2) her housing
3) her chance at a scholarship to a local university

My friends and I have been out protesting on a daily basis. We don't like this bill. But to tell the truth - we don't personally lose out on all that much if it is passed. Yes, I have many public sector friends who will take a 10% pay cut and yes, that is very hard. But most won't lose their house. They will still have health care and enough to eat.

She won't.

I did my best at explaining the various provisions of the bill and telling her about the 14 Wisconsin Senators who fled town to make sure that it didn't get passed until we could all learn everything we could about the bill. I told her that I didn't like the bill and that I'd been spending a lot of time up at the Capitol to protest the bill.

As I walked her up to her door to drop her off after dinner, she turned to me and said in a very quiet voice, "Kristen, do you think you could take me with you the next time you go protest? I'd like to do that too."

So on Saturday, I will proudly march in Madison again. This time, with the reason I'm marching right beside me.

I feel like Walker and his colleagues think that poverty is something that only happens to lazy, stupid, inept people. It is probably very easy to cut programs when you think they are going to support slackers and deadbeats. But I'm here to tell him that some of the most intelligent, kind, amazing people I know live below the poverty level. And we aren't going to stop marching!