Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
What do Karl Rove, Oshkosh Defense Corporation, the newly installed Wisconsin capitol police chief, and a tax-credit-for-government-contract deal have in common?
The systematic, corporate takeover of public education in the state of Wisconsin.
I sat down earlier in the day to work on a story about Skyward, a company that was offered $11.7 million in state tax credits to build their corporate headquarters in Stevens Point. This offer, made by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and accepted by the company last March, was contingent upon Skyward winning a $15 million bid to build a statewide K-12 student data system for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
Mainstream media outlets have been reporting on this scandal since it broke last month, but they’ve been focused on the bid-rigging aspect and the circle of Scott Walker cronies who coordinated the deal. Through the Department of Administration spokesperson Jocelyn Webster—a former Karl Rove operative in George Bush’s infamous Office of Political Affairs who also did stints with the Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie campaigns —Walker claimed that he hadn’t heard of the proposed deal until after he was deemed winner of the recall election June 5. Yesterday, the AP reported that they received documents through an open records request that indicated Walker’s office knew about the deal as soon as it was accepted on March 26.
The tax credit offer was rescinded June 18, the deadline for bids on building the data system was pushed back a month, and Skyward was still allowed to submit a proposal. The contract has not yet been awarded.
Cronyism and corruption seem to be hallmarks of Scott Walker’s management style wherever he goes. He is apparently under a federal grand jury investigation as well as a Milwaukee County John Doe investigation for improperly using county resources for political purposes. The seemingly corrupt practices themselves are not so surprising coming from his administration, and they hardly even seem like news anymore.
What is interesting, though, and what bears more investigation and widespread coverage are the projects for which these ethically challenged practices are employed. The Skyward example is just one case in point. Start tugging at a thread in that story and the whole tapestry of corporate domination of state policy starts to unravel.
It leads everywhere: From the recently awarded federal waiver of the No Child Left Behind law to the imposition of more and more standardized testing in schools; from the initiative to orient K-12 curriculum away from the needs of children and toward needs of employers to the practical elimination of teachers’ unions and catastrophic cuts to education budgets.
The web of the Skyward story even extends to the former U.S. Marine and Wisconsin state trooper who was yesterday named Chief of the Capitol Police. David Ewing has been serving as one of Scott Walker’s personal bodyguards for the past year and a half – he’s the first guy interviewed on this video - and was in attendance at a School and District Accountability Design Team meeting last August when protesters disrupted the event. At one point he shoved some people around and ripped a pen out of Jenna Pope’s hand as she was writing, “Fund Public Education, Not Corporations” on a flip chart.
If the warp of this fabric is policy and legislation, the weft is comprised of the individual people who enact and administer them and the social networks to which they belong.
Making the point far more eloquently than I, Chris Hedges wrote this article for Truthdig.com yesterday explaining the moral, social, and ecological hazards of a society made up of the kind of people whose hands are currently on the levers of power in Wisconsin, including many who consider themselves as people “just doing their jobs:”
“The greatest crimes of human history are made possible by the most colorless human beings,” Hedges wrote. “They are the careerists. The bureaucrats. The cynics. They do the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality. They collect and read the personal data gathered on tens of millions of us by the security and surveillance state… They issue the forms. They process the papers. They deny food stamps to some and unemployment benefits or medical coverage to others. They enforce the laws and the regulations. And they do not ask questions.”
I would add that they also do things like convene and participate in meetings such as the one referenced above, or the one I reported on last week in which business people and school district administrators sat around a table discussing how to create an education system that will churn out human cogs for a machine geared toward meeting the profit goals of business owners rather than the developmental needs of children.
For example, the push for more welding education in high school is being driven by the likes of the Oshkosh Defense Corporation, which was just awarded a contract by the United Arab Emirates to build 750 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicles that are “proven effective in supporting ground operations - from urban security patrols to combat in harsh desert and mountainous terrain.” What need Abu Dhabi or Dubai might have for 750 urban assault vehicles is beyond me. Perhaps they’ll re-sell them to neighboring Bahrain, where former U.S. police chiefs are imported as high-priced consultants to give advice on repressing a popular uprising. In any case, many welding instructors in Wisconsin’s high schools and technical colleges will probably just be happy to have a job and not want to bother themselves with these kinds of questions.
See what I mean about tugging on that thread?
The public education system of Wisconsin’s future will not prepare kids to ask those tough questions about the fundamental nature of our economy, either. In fact, it will do just the opposite by increasing the instructional time required to be focused on testing, and by focusing on imparting the “soft skills” of deference to superiors, cultivating a good attitude, and being a team player.
In order to meet the “accountability” standards of the No Child Left Behind waiver, the DPI must classify and track achievement test scores of individual students, schools, and school districts. Teachers and others who work with kids in the classroom say that the outcome of this massive data system, which will be linked with law enforcement and other statewide data systems, will do little to inform their work with individual students, and will, in fact, require them to take more time away from kids in order to manage the requirements of the program.
This is the very system that Skyward hopes to build at the cost of $15 million. We shall see whether they win the contract, and if so, whether those tax incentives designed to lure them into building their corporate headquarters in Stevens Point come through. But the fate of Skyward doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. Like Scott Walker, Skyward is simply a functionary within a larger, global field of power whose role can be taken up by another company or politician willing to “just do the job.”
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.