Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Bombs away

Today was finally the day for the UW System: a $250 million cut over the 2015–17 biennium, tenure removed from statute, shared governance severely curtailed, no public authority. UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents’ response? Declare victory!

Before JFC’s omnibus bill was even passed, Cross and the Regents announced that they would move immediately to enshrine tenure in Board policy at their meeting next week. Meanwhile, one of the two longest and most detailed items in the bill, item 39, is basically a step-by-step guide for firing tenured faculty. The circumstances under which the Board can do this, per JFC’s wording, are essentially limitless: “a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection”. Look for the Legislature to direct the Board to make broader use of these powers in the future should it prove insufficiently keen to do so at the outset. (Update: Item 40 strikes indefinite status for academic staff from statute for those who don’t have it by June 30, 2015, and prohibits its reimplementation in Board policy.)

Also included in the omnibus motion are items removing students’ control over the segregated fees that they charge themselves (items 32 and 37), placing control instead in the hands of campus chancellors; deleting a prohibition against universities’ using students’ social security numbers as their student ID numbers (item 63; who knew the identity theft monitoring lobby held such sway with Wisconsin Republicans? update: read this); and making the Waukesha County executive a chartering authority for charter schools that will receive public funding (buried inside item 70).

The very long item 70, devoted to creating “additional charter school authorizers”, is of a piece with last week’s JFC omnibus K-12 bill, which has garnered national media attention for its cruel and gratuitous assault on public education. That bill set in motion an expansion of Wisconsin’s system of publicly funded private-school vouchers, creating an entirely new government entitlement for the estimated 80% of anticipated voucher applicants who already attend a private school; the cost over the next ten years is pegged at between $600 million and $800 million. It also put forward a plan, authored by two Republican JFC members from the Milwaukee suburbs, to privatize Milwaukee’s “lowest-performing” public schools, on the model of disastrous “recovery” districts that have been created in cities like New Orleans and Detroit; see Jay Bullock’s column of this week for a thorough take-down. And it included a provision removing all licensing requirements for public school teachers; I shit you not.

In short, Wisconsin Republicans have declared total war on public education. Both the K-12 bill and the UW bill were negotiated and written totally in secret by committee Republicans, with the details released to the public only hours before the final, fore-ordained votes were held. Moral and political commitments aside, this leaves one to wonder whether those legislators who are quickest to cite “market-based” considerations have even a basic understanding of what Wisconsin’s comparative advantage is. Wisconsin has a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for its excellent public schools and universities. Without those, what is the point of living in Wisconsin as opposed to some other state? Set aside the fact that no UW campus will ever be able to recruit a top-tier scholar again. Why would anyone choose Wisconsin as a place to raise their family? Why would anyone in their right mind move to Wisconsin after this budget?

The budget still has to pass the full legislature, after which it will be subject to one of the strongest and most wide-ranging gubernatorial veto powers in the country. Some of the truly crazy stuff may yet come out. But a lot will stay in. Public K-12 and the UW System will be badly, perhaps irreparably, damaged.

A lot has already been said today about UW System leadership’s handling of the budget mess, and about Ray Cross’s leadership and negotiating tactics and strategy. I will leave the last word to Board of Regents President Mike Falbo: “With President Cross’s leadership, this new sense of partnership has helped us get to where we are today.”


Done and done

Today it’s official: no new revenue.  The much-hoped-for one-time cash infusion that Republican legislators were counting on in order to paper over the budget disaster they’ve created will not be forthcoming.  Despite having crossed all their fingers and toes, the Spring Revenue Fairy left them nothing.  How disillusioning!  It’s the kind of thing that makes some people stop believing in trickle-down economics.

With the rude if predictable demise of the fantasy, the media has wasted no time in trotting out the “tough choices” narrative to frame the late-stage budget negotiations that will take place in its wake.  Should you for some reason fail to appreciate the abject dishonesty of this narrative, allow Chuck Rybak to disabuse you.  Here’s a rule of thumb: the degree to which the media is carrying the GOP’s water with this framing is directly proportional to the pissiness of the beat writers’ tweets when they get called out.

Walker and legislative leaders immediately announced that they would move some money around to spare public K-12 from the $127 million in cuts that Walker proposed in February.  The details apparently involve monkeying with the timing of scheduled payments, not coming up with any actual new money, with the result that there will be an even bigger hole to fill two years down the road.  Guess where Walker plans to be then?

Where does this leave the UW System?  Can the state ship a briefcase full of cash across the International Date Line for us, too?  Alas, things are more or less where they were: JFC Co-Chair John Nygren still says he wants to reduce the cut, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald still says the UW can go to hell, and Scott Walker and Ray Cross are still talking about flexibilities.

Speaking of which, the other big “no” of the week was announced yesterday: no public authority.  It’s hardly a surprise at this point, but it’s still good to see the proposal officially dead in this budget.  It was never a serious idea.  It was never clear why the touted savings and flexibilities couldn’t be achieved via statute, or what purpose the proposal served other than to distract attention from the massive proposed budget cut.

What remains very much up in the air at this point is the status of Chapter 36.  In Walker’s initial budget proposal, the creation of the public authority went hand in hand with the near-total excision of Chapter 36 from state law: the UW System, tenure, shared governance, Downer Woods, everything.  All of it was to be put in the hands of the Board of Regents.  Now that the public authority is off the table, the only sensible thing for the legislature to do is to retain Chapter 36 intact, in its entirety, in state law.  You don’t push someone out of the plane when you’ve just thrown away their parachute.

Don’t be surprised if they take a quick stab at stitching a new one, though.  JFC now says it won’t send the budget back to the full legislature until the end of May.  UW is slated to be one of the last items voted on.  That’s lots of time for bad ideas to be floated, but also lots of time for UW supporters to organize and lobby legislators.

If nothing else, the existential uncertainty surrounding Chapter 36 should light a fire under the faculty at Madison: the System flagship is the campus best able to shield itself from budgetary threats (even if to the detriment of the rest of us), but on matters of tenure and shared governance, no one stands apart.