Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Going through the motions


What to say about last night’s Motion #999, with which JFC finished its work and sent the budget back to the full Legislature? The effective elimination of state open records requirements for Wisconsin legislators and their staff has grabbed headlines and been met with bracingly universal condemnation. It is an abuse of power so breathtaking that the twelve Republican legislators who voted for it are literally walking away from reporters when asked for the names of its sponsors.

In its contempt for democracy, transparency, public input, and the public good, however, it is entirely of a piece with the K-12 and UW System omnibus motions that JFC passed in May.

Of the many bad things in the K-12 motion, the “Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program” (OSPP) outlined in section 39 is perhaps the worst. Known locally as the MPS takeover plan, it was proudly sponsored by Rep. Dale Kooyenga and Sen. Alberta Darling, both from the Milwaukee suburbs. (Kooyenga’s Assembly district includes a small slice of the City of Milwaukee; the district is centered on Brookfield and Wauwatosa, and was formerly represented by Scott Walker. Darling’s Senate district used to include a similarly tiny slice of the City of Milwaukee, including the block I live on; post-2010 redistricting moved her district entirely out of Milwaukee. [Correction: the post-2010 redistricting completely removed from Darling’s district the portion of Milwaukee’s east side that she formerly represented; there remains a small section of Milwaukee’s northwest side that falls within the district.])

The plan creates, in effect, a parallel school district within Milwaukee that will be empowered to seize MPS schools and turn them over to charter operators or voucher-taking private schools. While there is, in principle, a mechanism for returning OSPP schools to MPS after a period of five years, that mechanism carries qualifications intended to ensure that no OSPP school will ever return to MPS. This, alongside funding provisions for OSPP and MPS spelled out in the motion, makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the plan’s purpose is to bankrupt the Milwaukee Public Schools. It is a measure of Darling and Kooyenga’s contempt for the city and its people that they may sincerely believe that this would be a good thing for Milwaukee schoolchildren.

Aiding and abetting the plan is Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele (who, like, Kooyenga, occupies a post once held by Scott Walker). The K-12 motion stipulates that the OSPP district be run by a commissioner appointed by the Milwaukee County Executive. At a lunchtime forum last week, Abele pointedly declined to state his opposition to the plan. Last night he received his apparent reward, in the form of section 67 of Motion #999, which drastically expands the powers of the Milwaukee County Executive relative to the county board. Abele is thus fully complicit in a plan whose all but openly acknowledged purpose is to destroy the Milwaukee Public Schools. It is depressingly far from implausible to think that the 2018 race for Wisconsin Governor could pit the Democrat Abele against the Republican Kooyenga.

The last hope for removing the MPS takeover plan from the budget comes from JFC’s failure to include funding for a new Bucks arena in their final budget motion. Republican leadership clearly does not want to lose the Bucks; Scott Walker himself jetted back to Wisconsin recently to hold a pro-arena press conference, selling short our collective dignity under the slogan “Cheaper to keep them“. Some outstate Republicans have balked, at least at the prospect of including the arena funding in a budget which their Democratic counterparts will have the political good fortune of being able to oppose unanimously. Republican leaders, in concert with JFC, have thus stripped the arena funding out of the budget and are now daring Milwaukee Democrats to vote against it as a standalone bill. This is the all too rare moment where Wisconsin’s Democratic legislators have negotiating leverage. They must use it to get the MPS takeover plan out of the budget.

It’s difficult to overstate the awfulness of the MPS takeover plan. I am both a tenure-track UW professor and an MPS parent. It is no small thing for me to say that the OSPP/MPS takeover plan is the provision in this budget that I find most objectionable.

Speaking of the university, Motion #999 left unchanged the termination language from section 39 of the UW omnibus that will effectively end tenure in the UW System (there were likewise no changes to the proposed elimination of indefinite status for academic staff and student control over segregated fees). The past few weeks have seen top UW administrators insisting furiously that tenure will remain secure. Unlike legislators, who continue to push the half-truth that tenure is moving into Board of Regents policy, UW administrators have begun to attempt a more nuanced parse of the offending termination language itself.

The result has been a mess of mixed signals: the new party line among UW administrators is that the System can retain bona fide tenure even if the section 39 language becomes law, but that the language has created a damaging public misperception and sown mistrust among faculty and others, and so should be removed as a gesture of good faith. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s Chronicle op-ed of last week exemplifies this argument, which has also appeared in emails from System President Ray Cross and in conversations with UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone reported by colleagues.

The administration’s argument that tenure can be preserved under section 39 rests on what one might charitably call a Pollyanna-ish misreading of the modal auxiliary may. Here are the relevant passages from the beginning of section 39:

Layoff due to budget or program decision: Modify current law to specify that the Board may, with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision regarding program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection, instead of when a financial emergency exists as under current law.

Specify that the Board may layoff or terminate a tenured faculty member, or layoff or terminate a probationary faculty member prior to the end of his or her appointment, when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification, or redirection.

In the terminology of the linguist Angelika Kratzer’s highly influential theory of modals, may and necessary here are interpreted with respect to different ordering sources, i.e., different sets of background facts and considerations. When JFC asks us to consider a situation in which the actions contemplated above are “deemed necessary”, it is necessity in view of what the university’s finances make possible, what the present educational imperatives of a university system are, and so forth. When JFC moves that such actions “may” indeed be taken in such a situation, it is possibility in view of what the law provides.

Cross, Blank, and Mone all claim to draw hope from the fact that the motion says may instead of must. This merely empowers the Board of Regents to take action under the (extremely broadly defined) circumstances specified in the motion, they say; it doesn’t force the Board to take any particular action. To which one can only respond: yes, how could it be otherwise? Imagine that may were replaced with must: this would create an absurd situation in which it would be necessary *in view of what the law provides* to fire tenured faculty when such an action is deemed necessary in view of budget and program considerations. In other words, it would be illegal not to fire tenured faculty in that case.

There is no hypothetical villainous must lurking here: may itself is the problem. Until now, budget necessities short of financial emergency (to say nothing of program necessities) have been situations in which it is impermissible, in view of what the law provides, for the Board of Regents to fire tenured faculty. The mere legal possibility, newly introduced by the JFC motion, *is* the problem. It is not a problem of perception or communication; it is a problem of law and power. UW administrators have made a show of staring this problem in the face, but they still dare not speak its name.

It hardly needs repeating at this point, but all of these extremely damaging changes to the state of Wisconsin—the gutting of open records laws, the planned dismantling of the state’s largest school district, the elimination of tenure in the UW System, and much more besides—were developed totally in secret by the twelve legislators who comprise the JFC majority, and passed on party-line votes within hours of being released to the public (or to committee Democrats, for that matter). The open records changes have drawn the harshest and broadest rebuke, but they are emblematic of a broader pattern of brazen disregard for the public that this committee has exhibited throughout the budget process. Chris Abele’s aligning himself with this committee in its attack on Milwaukee Public Schools is unforgivable. UW administrators’ steadfast refusal to question this committee’s false narrative of budgetary strain and scarcity has predictably led to a dire outcome for everyone but those administrators themselves. Meanwhile, legislative leaders invoke cash balances amassed by UW administrators as an excuse for slashing funding, while in the next breath calling for those very same administrators to be vested with newly broadened powers.

It is difficult to imagine a moral failure of leadership more absolute than the one we are now witnessing at almost every level in Wisconsin.