By Ruth Conniff on March 16, 2011

Using the word "tools" over and over again, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker explained to the press how his budget cuts to public education -- approximately $900 million: the biggest in state history -- the end of collective bargaining for teachers, and other drastic changes will actually result in a net savings for schools in Wisconsin.

"We're giving our schools and local governments the tools they need," to make needed reform he said, which amounts to "a net benefit to school districts."

Predicting a "robust economy" and job growth, he added "As we get on that economic upturn, we'll have the tools in place so money will be going into the classroom and not into excessive benefits packages."

Chanting and singing by protesters in the hallway were audible inside the ornate governor's office. Surrounded by paintings, flags, and carved wood paneling decorated in gold leaf, the governor stood beneath a ceiling panel with gold letters declaring: "The will of the people is the law of the land."

According to a press release from the governor's office, savings may vary: "The estimates may vary depending on existing employee compensation plans and the length of existing bargaining contracts among other unique local factors."

But if districts seize the "tools" and drive a hard bargain with teachers, they can save a lot of money, the governor asserted.

In a separate press conference, Democratic representatives Sondy Pope-Roberts of Middleton and Fred Clark of Baraboo denounced what they described as the governors move to privatize the entire education system in Wisconsin.

The fact that the governor's budget cuts funds for public schools at the same time that it lifts caps on vouchers -- so even well-to-do families can use public funding to go to private schools -- is a blow against a healthy public education system, Pope-Roberts said.

Clark pointed out that while the governor is increasing transportation funds for highways, the cuts to schools will result in many school closings, especially in rural communities, and in larger class sizes. Furthermore, the budget further exacerbates inequities -- keeping more money in wealthier districts and less money in poor areas, while siphoning off funds so upper income people can go to private school.

"We can do a much more fair job with money for schools," he said.

"A good public education system is part of the Wisconsin brand," Pope-Roberts added. "We cannot build our future without it."

Calling the governor's cuts "draconian," Pope-Roberts and Clark emphasized that they would drastically reduce the quality of Wisconsin's public schools.

Furthermore, said Clark, "What we've done with this budget is to set up a secondary system of education with its own rules." Calling the changes in the law that expand vouchers to all income levels and allow charter schools to operate throughout the state free of controls by local school boards "a parallel, private school system," Clark said "It's like two different playing fields. It's not going to be good for kids."

Pope-Roberts connected Walker's efforts in Wisconsin to a national drive to privatize public education.

"We've been hearing about this for years now," she said. "I see Wisconsin as the first domino in a line. As this falls, I see other state hoping to achieve our quote-unquote success ... by crushing unions and taking public schools private."

Wisconsin has long had a strong public school system -- an attractive feature of the state. But it is also an incubator for school reform -- particularly in Milwaukee, where the conservative Bradley Foundation has been a big national driver of vouchers and other privatization efforts.

"We started by being the first state to have a voucher school, in Milwaukee," Pope-Roberts said. "Now we will be the first state to ... basically create charter school districts."

As for the "tools" the governor says he is giving school districts, "his tools are all hatchets," Pope-Roberts said.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "The Costly Brain Drain in Wisconsin."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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