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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, October 30, 2006

If the choice is so clear, don't muddy the water trying to explain it

In the first of a promised series on editorials about where the candidates for governor--Republican Mark Green and Democrat Jim Doyle--stand on "the issues," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today discusses the education platforms of each candidate. This issue happens to be one I know well, as a teacher and follower of education politics. And though I think they reach the right conclusion--Doyle is the better choice on education--getting there is a challenge.

In a sad effort to be fair to both candidates, the editorial board ends up offering their readers mush--it's about as shallow as your average Jessica McBride column. In an age when too many people feel there is no difference between candidates of either party, the editorial board does a disservice by blurring distinctions in a both-have-good-points haze.

It starts well enough, entitled "Education: It's about deeds," it gets underway reminding everyone that "when it came to putting money on the line for educational programs in Congress, Green has come up short--raising the fear he would repeat that pattern as governor." Indeed, on everything from fully funding No Child Left Behind to making student loans more affordable (as college gets less so), Green has failed to stand up for the side of education. And remember, this isn't just about putting money into the hands of those greedy teachers unions; no, this is about making sure families have access to opportunity and local schools don't have to make the difficult decision between testing and, say, art classes (ramifications ignored by the editorial).

But then the editorial dissolves into a puddle of he said-he saidishness and on-the-other-handisms. Take this line: "Clearly, school financing has to be overhauled. Both have said they would examine ways to do this." Horse hockey! Green has stammered out answers in response to pointed questions; Doyle actually convened a panel and put forward a proposal that died between his office and the legislature. (No, I didn't like the plan; but it's absolutely not a he "would examine ways" sort of thing.)

And the editorial again misses what I see as the two biggest red flags in Mark Green's education plan--the deceptively dangerous "70% solution" (dismissed with "it's unclear what it would take to reach Green's target") and the end of collective bargaining for teachers, which still has received no journalistic coverage anywhere that I've seen--not even from the teachers unions! (A fuller discussion of all of Green's plan is here.)

Though the editorial ends by noting that Doyle seems to be winning on education, at least, it does nothing to highlight what is indeed a stark contrast between where the two men stand on K-12 and higher education. The two paragraphs about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program--the voucher program--are perhaps the perfect example:
Green's proposals on Milwaukee's voucher program are mixed. He readily supports the program--that's good. It has expanded educational opportunities for needy families. He wants to include private schools (not children) in the suburbs--not a bad idea. He also wants to lift the income cap--a worrisome step. The program must stay targeted at the needy who otherwise lack school options.

Doyle is no big fan of choice. But he was a key to expanding the program, giving it desperately needed breathing room. He deserves credit for this compromise, and, we'd note, his objections were aimed at getting more legislative support for smaller class sizes. A good thing, too.
Let me put that into English for you: Mark Green supports unfettered expansion of an unregulated and unproven system that puts taxpayer dollars into the hands of people who are not accountable to the taxpayers in any way--tax dollars that place an undue burden on the city of Milwaukee and are, in fact, partially responsible for the levy increase we learned about a couple weeks back. Governor Doyle supports working within the public schools to improve the education of all students, and (unmentioned by the editorial) bringing some measure of accountability to the private schools that take tax dollars. (His "compromise" was not strong enough on accountability--see, for example, here and here.)

That is a significant difference, and the paper plays it as "both have good points to make." No, they don't. Vouchers are, without question, the single biggest flashpoint issue in education in this state, and the two candidates will take radically different actions in office regarding the MPCP--not to mention their very different reactions, I suspect, when the incredibly pro-voucher legislature reconvenes. I recognize that the paper's editorial board and I disagree on the voucher question; but their downplaying here of the significant difference of opinion on the expansion of and need for accountability in the program does not, in fact, serve the voters' interests. Particularly when many of the voters they reach are directly impacted--through the tax implications, if nothing else--by the program.

I don't know what issue the editorial board will tackle tomorrow, but I hope that they do a better job of drawing the line between the two candidates--muddying the waters over what ought to be a clear choice helps no one make up their minds about this election.

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