Wisconsin is Typically a Battleground State, but never quite like this...

By Katy Venskus, Wisconsin State Director

OK, so we all know the Democrats in Wisconsin took it in the teeth last fall. The GOP took not only the Governor's office and both houses of the legislature, but they heisted the office furniture and window treatments as well. The Republicans have large enough majorities that they could have sent the Dems to the sidelines, if they had played it right. Instead they overreached and now those sidelines are in northern Illinois. Instead, Democrats have in effect been granted the power to hold up the biggest piece of legislation Governor Scott Walker has tried to advance to date.

The foundation of Walker's bill was extracting wage and benefits concessions from teachers to balance the state budget - issues on which Walker likely would have more or less prevailed. The twist is that Walker also included in the bill a provision that, for all intents and purposes, would took away public employees unions' rights to collectively bargain, which is the reason unions exist in the first place. (The words "union" and "collective" are synonyms, along with words like "group" "cooperative," and shared.") Last week this was a do or die issue for Walker, exponentially growing crowds "stormed" the Capitol, setting off a grassroots firestorm the likes of which is unprecedented here. Meanwhile, Democratic legislators fled the state to deny the Governor the quorum needed to formally proceed on his bill.

State Employees Storm the WI Capitol

There are two things that shock me about the current situation. One makes me smile and the other strikes me as a terrible missed opportunity on the GOP's part. First of all, I am fairly familiar with the Democratic Senate Caucus and I have witnessed first hand their inability to create leverage for themselves with control of both houses and the Governor's office. Now with significant minorities and only one option...a nuclear one...they have managed to make themselves very, very relevant, albeit from 100 or so miles away. More significant though is the missed opportunity - the GOP would have seen concessions from the unions, even the Democrats understood those were necessary. The GOP does not need to wipe out collective bargaining to make real change or to balance the budget  - they need to wipe out collective bargaining to make a political point.
So what does all this mean for education reform here? Let me be clear - in the bill currently being debated - absolutely nothing. Anyone who tells you this bill is about facilitating education reform doesn't know what's in the bill, OR, for that matter, what the meaning of education reform, even is. There's also a few who are just wing ideologues in ed reformer clothing. The real tragedy of the bill, though, is not its failure to reform any aspect of our notoriously stagnant public education system. The absence of real reform is actually its least abhorrent feature. What is much more potentially damaging to the reform climate is the union powder-keg that Walker and friends have set off.

Education, and specifically education reform, is one of the few issues where, prior to Walker's pressing the nuclear button, there could have been some honest-to-goodness bipartisan agreement and action. Governor Walker and legislative leadership had allies on school reform in Milwaukee, talented, committed, and experienced policymakers such as Senator Lena Taylor, State Representative Jason Fields, and others. There easily could have been powerful alliances formed that pushed the teacher's union to let go of some of their worst hang-ups. At a time when even WEAC realized it's position on teacher evaluation and quality measures was doomed, they could have changed the power dynamic between WEAC and the legislature deftly and decisively, without lighting a "Union-YES" fire under teachers all across Wisconsin. There could have been joint improvement and expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice program, opening up options to thousands of families who had been turned away before. The first-ever serious talk about expanding independent charters and getting serious about attracting high quality national operators to the State could have driven education policy changes that would have catapulted Wisconsin from education reform laggard to a national reform leader. 

I hope as time passes and the dust (and considerable) garbage settles from the last week of protests that there will still be the ability and inclination on the part of some of Wisconsin's true education reformers (those who understand that reform is a lot more complicated than just sticking it to the union and those who understand that the union status quo was not and is still not a viable option), Republicans and Democrats to come together and work on some of the issues that we were seeing real progress on before February 15th. If not, the impact will be felt by kids and parents a lot longer than the 2 or 3 days of school closures we saw last week. 

Katy is a Wisconsin native who came to DFER in January 2009, bringing with her 10 years of public policy and political experience. Katy has managed several issue and political campaigns in the City of Milwaukee and statewide. She became interested in the education reform movement after leading the Democratic effort to lift the enrollment cap on Milwaukee's groundbreaking Milwaukee Parental Choice program.Read more about Katy here.