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.”