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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

Your humble folkbum here. I'm back in the country, neither rested nor tanned.

Here's the scariest thing I've seen all year:

Actual search results. Seriously.

The guest bloggers have been awesome. If Bryan, Sarah, and Stephen want to keep their things going, I wish they would. The Fadness-Paske throwdown is the most exciting thing to happen here since, well, ever.

Also of note is the Greg Borowski story I alluded to a while ago about having been interviewed for and such. Of course it ran when I was gone. A commenter tells me it was on the front page and everything.

In all, it's been a good year, and I have to say that rounding it out with great work from great people is the icing on the cake. That, and the wildly exploding readership:

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by, read, commented, guest posted, or whatever it is that you did here. Have a better 2006, and come back often.

Bryan Kennedy's Progressive Religious Values

Update by folkbum: MU Warrior and Boots and Sabers readers are encouraged to read the entire essay below, as McAdams and Owen both completely misrepresent what Professor Kennedy actually says. Bryan responds here, and my personal rejoinders are here and here.

How is it that conservative religious zealots have seized my Savior and determined His values? Why do they try to tell me how to live my life and how to follow Him? How did they come to the conclusion that Christ was pro-war, pro-business, and that He spouted hatred for people who were not like Him? These questions have puzzled me for quite some time. I was raised to believe that Christ was the peacemaker, he cast the money changers out of the temple, and he taught us to turn the other cheek.

I was raised Catholic, but as a teenager my family and I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons/Latter-Day Saints). This was not an easy transition. We were nominally Catholic, so the move to a Church that requires so much of its followers was a big step. Mormons are among the most personally conservative of all Christians. We are strongly pro-family, don't drink, don't smoke, believe in chastity before marriage and fidelity once married, and we tithe 1/10th of our household income to the Church. To become a Latter-Day Saint is to make a major lifestyle change for most people. (It certainly was for us!!)

Despite conservative personal behaviors, Latter-Day Saints are also very progressive collectively. The Church has its own welfare system and we take care of people during hard times. The LDS Church has a worldwide charitable arm that functions in areas of natural disaster, famine or war to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Our women's auxiliary regularly provides meals and assistance to families when a new child is born, a parent is sick or there is a death in the family. We take seriously the passage from the
Book of Mormon, "When ye are in the service of your fellow being, ye are only in the service of your God." (Mosiah 2:17) Our Sunday School classes and weekly worship services regularly teach of: faith, hope and charity; brotherly kindness; and lifting up the sick, the afflicted, the elderly, the fatherless, the widows, and the downtrodden.

We also hold as one of the most important tenets of our faith God's gift of
agency. We believe that we are saved by grace after all that we can do for ourselves. Being a follower of Christ requires us to give all of our heart, might, mind and strength to keeping His commandments and to emulating His example. In the end, we are human and will fall short. Thus, Christ's grace saves us after all that we attempt to do for ourselves. Our agency is our God-given right to make our own decisions and to chart our own paths in life. God forces no one to follow His Son; we must decide for ourselves to pursue His Gospel in word and deed. Agency allows us the freedom to choose for ourselves in all things. To Latter-Day Saints there is NOTHING as important as agency.

Latter-Day Saints so strongly supported agency and religious freedom that they were driven by mobs of religiously intolerant Christians from Illinois and Missouri in the 1840's to leave the United States and go to the Rocky Mountains. (Utah was part of Mexico when Mormons fled there 160 years ago.)

In the past couple of decades, LDS people have compromised their belief in religious tolerance and have "gotten into bed" politically with conservative religious ideologues, most of whom hate Mormons. (This animosity is because we believe that we have a living prophet, who talks with God and provides revelation for us today.) Despite this hatred by many conservative Christian churches, LDS people have voted lock-step with them on issues of abortion, lotteries/gambling, and "moral values." Utah, which is over 70% Mormon has not voted Democratic for President since 1964. While Mormons espouse conservative, moral, personal behavior, we still believe that each person has their agency to choose for themselves. This conservative political realignment of the LDS Church appears to be overshadowing the best characterisitics of our religious actions--the progressive social values that fuel our church welfare, fellowship, and charitable programs.

Having now given a primer on what Latter-Day Saints believe, let me explain why I diverge from my religious community on political issues. It comes down to two things--my upbringing in an immigrant, pro-labor family, and my STRONG belief in agency as my primary religious value.

While I live by the conservative code of conduct of the Church, I recognize that it is a personal choice. I choose to live this way and I feel spiritually stronger by having bedrock principles that guide my actions. There is nothing so important to me as my freedom to make these decisions for myself. I resent people telling me how to live my life and criticizing me for not drinking and for not "sowing my wild oats" before getting married. There were many in my extended family who chastised us for abandoning our cultural religion in search of greater spiritual satisfaction. Within a few years, however, they saw a dramatic change in our family, our relationships improved, and my overwhelmingly Catholic family respects my parents, my brothers and me for our dedication to following Christ's example.

Our representative democracy promotes religious freedom and tolerance and allows for people to make their own decisions about what to believe and what religious organizations to join. We also allow the freedom to not worship at all, if an individual so chooses. Essentially the "agency" that is so central to Mormon doctrine is written into the guaranteed freedoms of the United States Constitution.

The official policies of the Church are actually more moderate than many other conservative Christian religious groups. The LDS Church does not excommunicate a woman who has an abortion, although they do excommunicate persons who commit murder or assault. The Church's policy on abortion is "
Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer. The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion" (Church Policies Handbook, p. 157). The LDS Church does not oppose birth control. Once again, the Church Policies Handbook: " The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter. Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife" (p. 158). On prolonging life, such as the Terry Schiavo case, the Church has said: "When severe illness strikes, members should exercise faith in the Lord and seek competent medical assistance. However, when dying becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking diving guidance through fasting and prayer" (Church Policies Handbook, p. 156). We are a more moderate people that current political behaviors would lead one to believe. Each of these "moral values" issues mentioned above has agency and personal choice as its foundation.

As you can see, my personal political views appear to be in-line with the policies and teachings of my church. I choose to use my agency to follow Christ's example. I respectfully allow others the right to use their God-given agency however they may. A respected conservative, Voltaire, is purported to have said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That is my personal feeling about civil liberties and religious freedom--agency and personal choice.

I am the grandchild of Italian immigrants. My grandfather, as a teenager, fled Mussolini and ended up in central Pennsylvania working in a coal mine, later a steel mill, and finally in a Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. My grandfather was one of the original signatories on UAW Local 171 union charter at Mack. While my grandfather was a religious conservative, he was a strong supporter of workers' rights and liveable wage. He taught me that management can do good things, but they won't generally do it without some prodding. He always believed in working together and in fostering good relationships with management. His philosophy was: "Sometimes they give; sometimes we do." Outside of the union hall, he was a charitable and giving person. He once said to my 9th grade social studies class: "I have worked hard and been poor. I cannot judge someone else because I do not know what setback they have suffered. I give and don't ask questions." That is my example of progressive religious values.

My progressive religious upbringing does provide a foundation for my political beliefs. My recipe for successfully navigating the political world and getting things done in Washington: Take a healthy dose of personal choice and individual freedom and add equal parts of moderation in all things, building consensus, and working together.

This post should probably invite a lot of commentary. I look forward to reading your feedback and comments. Thanks, God bless, and Happy New Year.

Bryan Kennedy

Friday, December 30, 2005

Reality Bites

I've sat back for a couple of days and let people write responses and post comments regarding my post, "Winning Back the Public Mind." As a result, I think I've found the difference in philosophy between myself if I were a union leader, and those currently in charge.

It's become clear that the MTEA and its members have a very utopian vision of what things should be like in the schools (as they should, being that it's their main interest). Defenders of the current union strategy cite the way certain teachers would be valued in an ideal society and the benefits that would be given in a similar situation. However, this is not the society we live in.

We live in a society where a majority of workers, many with salaries lower than teachers, pay significant premiums for health insurance. We live in a society, where whether we like it or not, athletes and entertainers do make obnoxious amounts of income when compared with what they truly contribute to the common good. And we live in a society where union members are on a short leash in the eyes of the public, because they do have superior benefits to your average person. Do teachers work hard? In a majority of cases, yes. But when compared to my friend Jason the accountant, who makes only $5,000 more than I did in MPS, but who was on his 56th consectutive day of work when I spoke with him last April, definately not harder. Who when compared to the teachers I worked with at St. Charles alternative school, who made about $5000 less than I did in MPS, but who did not have summer, Christmas, or Spring Break off, definately not harder.

This is why the MTEA is failing as it tries to fry the bigger fish. The ordinary people who are charged with financing the salary and benefits of teachers are working very hard, and the teachers have not been able to give them a coherant arguement as to why they are entitled to a superior benfits package to the one they have. Do I wish that this society were different? Yes. I wish it were a society where the Union members were able to maintain their current compensation package without a vicious fight. But if the MTEA continues to bluntly fight for the big prize, when the citizens of Milwaukee who fund their compensation lose ground, they have no hope of being victorious.

My point in "Winning Back the Public Mind," is that the Union needs to take a step back, take a look at how their members are doing compared to "most" people in the community, and not just the rich entertainers, and then fight for things that will again put the public on their side. Before the Union tries to cook the big fish, it needs to catch a few small ones and build momentum.

The truth is, that the health-care package that the Union calls a disaster for its members isn't just the problem of its members. It's a problem in society; the problem of skyrocketing health-care costs without a real solution in sight. And until that problem is rectified on a national scale, the union is foolish to think that it can win on that front. But some of those other things I suggested, and no doubt many more not listed, were winnable battles. These were things the public would be in favor of for teachers, because they do not give the appearance that teachers are getting more than the average guy on the street. Quite frankly, had the Union's health-care package been approved, and even with the current plan, that appearance is in place.

Perhaps I'm too pragmatic, too conservative maybe, but I like to think the word "realist" comes to mind. In this case reality bites, and I'm of the opinion that if the Union wants to make real strides, it needs to step back from its most recent losses and regroup.

The "Brokeback" Effect

By now, you’ve probably heard about "Brokeback Mountain." It’s a new movie about two ranch hands who work in Wyoming in the 1960’s, gradually fall in love, and silently struggle for years in a world that makes it nearly impossible for them to be together.

Over Christmas weekend, the film posted the highest per-screen average of any movie. To put that in perspective, "Brokeback Mountain" earned $13,599 per theater; “King Kong" took in $9,305 per screen. This weekend the film opened in more cities, building slowly on strong word-of-mouth personal reviews and a gaggle of award nominations, including seven Golden Globes.

The Milwaukee No on the Amendment Coalition hosted an exclusive premiere of the movie on Wednesday night, and it’s now open to the public at the Landmark Oriental. The film is expected to expand to many more theaters across the state over the next few weeks.

Could there be a "Brokeback" effect in Wisconsin?

There just might be. It won’t be overnight or obvious, but I think people will leave this movie with a greater compassion for the challenges facing gay people. People will leave the movie feeling—for the first time ever—a sense of connection and empathy to a love story between two men.

As Frank Rich discussed in the New York Times, Brokeback could have an effect on the ongoing culture war. He writes, “In the packed theater where I caught ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ the trailers included a National Guard recruitment spiel, and the audience was demographically all over the map. The culture is seeking out this movie not just because it is a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair and is beautifully acted ….The X factor is that the film delivers a story previously untold by A-list Hollywood. It's a story America may be more than ready to hear…”

I believe movements for social progress need popular narratives that tell stories of individual struggle. People—especially people who have no interest in following the twists and turns of issues on the news or in the statehouse—need narratives that invite sympathy (and maybe even empathy) for a group of people who used to be merely stereotypes.

Over the past decade, representations of gay people in mass media have increased dramatically. That’s important. But "Brokeback Mountain" offers something different. It’s a mainstream release with popular actors that offers one of many untold stories of people throughout the ages who have struggled silently with being gay—what it means to find love and to be forced to keep it secret because of the immense pressures of who your society, community, and family expect you to be.

There are people across Wisconsin who know gay people and generally support the concept of fairness, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding the challenges facing gay people. Maybe they’ve never had a friend who struggled with harassment or being rejected by family. Maybe they’ve said they support equal treatment for gay couples but deep down still don’t believe relationships between people of the same gender are as real or authentic as their own.

This movie is likely to get millions more people to see—and feel—the intense social pressures, the psychological anguish, and the just-as-real and powerful love that gay people experience. It will get people to cry for the silenced love between two men. It will get people angry about the senselessness of forcing gay people to live in sham heterosexual marriages.

If the movie continues to scoop up award nominations and continues to sell out shows as it expands into Middle America, I think there’s a very good chance it will slowly change the way people relate to gay people and gay issues.

Maybe more Wisconsinites will think about this personal story of loss when they hear debates about the civil unions and marriage ban. For the first time, they will have a popular narrative of personal struggle to reference. The "Brokeback" effect just might make the issue less abstract.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The MTEA, New Ideas, and Me

This is Sarah, again, and tonight I am going to write about some of the union issues raised earlier. I am concurrently working on my next two posts, too, so this is kind of a part one of a trilogy.

I have been involved in the MTEA since I ran for Building Representative about five years ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the MTEA and its workings, let me explain.

As I attempt to explain this, I see what I don’t know; please forgive me. Within the MTEA are all teachers, educational assistants, safety assistants (security), book keepers and accountants, social workers, psychologists, and maybe secretaries (??). The cooks are definitely in another union (SEIU, I think), and the administration (assistant principals, principals) has a union, but theirs is very weak.

Since there are several thousand teachers, every building has one building representative per 25 teachers, who should attend MTEA meetings, answer questions and distribute materials on a building level. Building Representatives approve the budget, any MTEA Constitutional changes, and approve or disprove resolutions during the year. I have been a BR for four or five years.

When I ran for BR, my “position” was that the MTEA needed to support the PROFESSIONALISM of teachers. I stand by that, but I have certainly learned a lot in the process. There is no easy black and white solution like I used to believe before my direct involvement. Additionally, the MTEA is pretty busy fighting some of the initiatives being put forth by the current superintendent and school board—initiatives that when studied in detail, are horrible for public education. It is pretty difficult to fight the administration, the school board, and the editorial staff at the Journal Sentinel in the current political climate. I would like to give you a couple of examples in my next posting.

Now, however, I would like to address some of the ideas thrown out there by Stephen. For the record, I like the ideas and think they are fantastic…but since I am involved in the MTEA, I know that life is pretty complex. Sadly, we have bigger fish to fry.

The first priority of any union is to take care of its workers. This superintendent and this school board are not interested in the PEOPLE who are on the “front lines” with the students. Their first priority is…well, I am not sure. I have theories..but…??

Jay has written over and over about the health care plan that was offered to the board by the MTEA, and that plan, which would have been beneficial to everyone, was rejected. Now, the MTEA is swamped, and I do mean swamped, with the repercussions of bad health care decisions. Additionally, there are decisions being made daily that trample the rights of all members (especially safety aides) that the MTEA is fighting. They are a little busy right now.

This may be why some of Stephan’s ideas won’t be heard as loudly as perhaps they should. I am skipping the math (I will return to that) and going to the tuition reimbursement idea first.

What a great idea. A few other districts do reimburse tuition. Stephan is right, teachers could use the money for the mandated education, and it’s expensive. I want to start my second Master’s and the biggest factor that is holding me back is the cost. In fact, I will do you one better and tell you that we better start looking at the individual institutions that provide those Master’s Degrees, too (subjective, very subjective...but I wish we could set up some system to do this). I received my Master’s at Alverno College, and you, gentle readers, need to know that if you want a program that will kick your butt, go to Alverno. Conversely, there are a lot of fast track programs that may not offer a lot along the lines of rigor. They, in my opinion, should not be reimbursed in any way, and for that matter should not be acceptable as a Master’s Degree for a raise in salary. There are other school districts that limit the acceptable programs (Muskego is one, I believe), and I would love to see MPS do the same.

But, let me caution you--$1,000 every five years is not even a drop in the bucket. My next Master’s Degree will cost $1,500 three or four times a year (that’s rounding down if I started today), and will take two or three years. That $1,000 is nice, but really not much in the face of a good graduate level education.

Stephan then raises the point of equity in state funding. Actually, the unions are on this. I have been at almost every MTEA meeting for five years, and I attend the WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council—the state union) Representative Assembly as well. Believe me, equity comes up time and time again. Governor Doyle has been working on this, the state democrats have looked at it, WEAC writes about it—we (teachers) all know that the problem exists. I talk about it out there in the world.

So, why haven’t we all heard abut it? Well, the Journal Sentinel isn’t too interested in an expose. When I read the newspapers up north, their biggest worry seems to be “not sending our money to Milwaukee.” There is a culture in the rest of the state that says this: “Milwaukee Bad.” There is little support for the city and children of Milwaukee outside of Milwaukee proper (not everyone, of course). Using my own parents as an example, there has been a drastic change in attitude in the 12 years I have been teaching here. When I started, my parents (Dad especially) could not understand what “those teachers are doing down there.” Now that they hear the stories of the poverty, the realities, and the struggle, they get it, and they know that we are working hard. Relatively few people in the rest of the state have offspring or siblings working in MPS; so few people hear the stories. Sadly, equity is not going to be easy, and a big reason is because the lack of equity benefits pretty much everyone but MPS and some very rural districts up north.

Now, back to math (and special education, too—that is actually a bigger problem in all school districts). I would assert that paying teachers of math, science, special education more would be lovely—again, in the ideal world. My concern is that math teachers (and science) are not necessarily math majors at the middle school level. Heck, I am certified to teach math, but you don’t really want that above maybe the sixth grade level. However, if you are going to offer math teachers more cash, I might just hop over to math, if my principal lets me, and teach it. I have an elementary education certification, after all, that allows me to teach any subject from grades 1 through 8. I suspect that unless there are some real stipulations, you would see a shift of teachers to math, and sadly, that shift will not necessarily be fair to kids or adults.

But, let’s say that we are going to pay math teachers the most. Okay…don’t get me wrong--I love my math-teaching friends, and we need the best math teachers we can get. But frankly, for work time alone, I am going to argue on behalf of the English/writing teacher. It’s hard to get students to do math. It’s also hard to get them to write. Correcting math—difficult. Correcting writing—sweet Jesus in July, does anyone have some extra time to come and help me??? Please? Additionally, if we start looking at whose curricula is more or less valued in education, we might as well throw the music and art teachers out the window, because as we fund schools, they are so undervalued, it’s ridiculous. Where does it then begin and end?

Of course, one could argue that if we pay teachers for what they teach, that would improve the teaching of specific subjects. Certainly that makes sense. Pay the math teachers more, and the special education teachers, too, and the science teachers. In the "real world," doctors make more than janitors, and when one becomes a janitor, one knows that ahead of time, just like as a history major (first major), I knew I wouldn't ever hit it big--in or out of teaching. I get the argument, but if we REALLY want schools to reflect the value of society, maybe we should pay the physical education teachers the most, since they teach the future NFL and NBA teachers what they need to know to get the big money (there is no subject where one learns how to inherit from rich daddy, is there? If so, those teachers could really hit it big).

Or, maybe schools, school districts, unions, and teachers should strive to refect what society SHOULD BE instead of what it is.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why am I running for Congress???

Hello. I am Bryan Kennedy and I am running for US House of Representatives in the WI-5 district. I will oust House Judiciary Chair Jim Sensenbrenner in November, 2006. This is my second try, having run in the 2004 cycle, as well. For those unfamiliar with my race, last year I received 130,000 votes. In many districts, that would have been enough to win, but we had an extraordinarily high turnout. I believe that next year will be closer to normal turnout and by mobilizing the 130,000 supporters from last year and by changing the minds of another 20,000 or so I will win.

Today I will explain why I am running. Over the next few days I will touch on an issue that comes up regularly in campaigning--the intersection of my religious faith and my political stands on issues.

Why am I running? Change, change, change, change. Change the control of Congress. Change the accountability of Congress. Change the direction of Congress. Change the face of Congress.

2006 will be an anti-incumbent year. I do not believe it will be a good year to be a Republican or Democratic incumbent in Congress. The American people are fed up with a a corrupt Republican leadership and a "do nothing" Democratic opposition. I believe that we will see a "throw the bums out" revolution at the ballot box next November. There are a lot of Republicans that I believe should get the boot, but there are also a few Democrats who should be shown the door.

We need a Congress composed of people from all walks of life and that reflects the values of the American people, not extremists. We need a legislature that will truly fight for the people and not cowtow to special interest groups. The next Congress must pass: legislation that keeps the American people safe while also protecting our Constitutional rights and liberties; legislation that fosters stronger communities; legislation that improves our public schools; budgets that are in balance; campaign finance and redistricting reforms; and legislation that reflects the good old American ethic of "If you work hard and play by the rules, you will get ahead."

Check out my website at

Monday, December 26, 2005

Here I the North

I am another of Jay's guests. My name is Sarah Fadness, Jay's friend in "real life." I met Jay at a MTEA meeting about two or three years ago. I instantly loved his politics.

When Jay invited me to blog, I was surprised and pleased to be among such a distinguished group. I did think, however, that I am less qualified than some of the others, but Jay convinced me that I can talk from the middle school teacher point of view, give my perspectives about the nineth grade "bubble," or about the school board. I certainly know middle school, and I have an opinion about nineth graders and why there may be a bubble, and I attend as many school board meetings as I I am qualified in some way to put something out here.

But today I write from the northern part of the state--from Chippewa Falls, where my parents live. Most of my relatives live in this general area, which at times makes me unique among my friends in the Milwaukee area, who often grew up right there. (I say "at times" because there is always an exception, and right now I can think of two friends who grew up in Chicago.)

I find it difficult to write about school today. Every time I look at the papers I need to correct, I get a stomach ache. I've given some thought to what I would like to write about, and I am ignoring them all for today.

Since I am writing from the Great North, I am going to mention how balmy the weather is today. I wonder (actually, I think I know) what it means when I am almost on the very latitude that would put me 3/4 of the way to the North Pole from the equator...and it is December 26th...and the snow is melting. I wonder if we need more science or study time, or could it be that there is something to this "Global Climate Change." (I don't call it Global Warming, because any time the temperatures dip below about 20 degrees, some smarty makes a remark about how it just can't be true, and they wish global warming would hurry up and arrive. That joke is not funny unless it is at least -40.)

I know I am getting old, and I am sure that time plays tricks on all of our minds, but I do remember a time when we would get snow in November, and it would stay put until March. Sure, there was that really mild January in the early 80s, but there were all those other winters when my family and I were sledding down gravel road hills in the country (yes, gravel road hills, covered with ice and snow, because it was northern Wisconsin where no one lived and it was that wintery), when my sister and I dug tunnels--not forts, but tunnels in the snow, and then there were snow days and getting-out-early-from-school-days...

My mom remarked at Christmas dinner that she heard that the climate change was speeding up so that in 2050, Wisconsin's climate would be like that of Arkansas today. I don't know her source, and I hope she's wrong. I love winter: the snow and yes, even the sub-zero temperatures (when I am inside). These are the things that keep our state balanced--snow is water (need I say more?), the low temperatures kill germs, and mold, and bacteria, and insects. As we mess with this delicate balance, we play a dangerous game. We know we will lose, but we don't know exactly what the consolation prize is. All in all, this is a bad idea.

I'm sad that my cousins' children are not digging tunnels and that their snowmen are already melting. I'm also sad that as a nation, we don't seem to care. And, I certainly don't have an answer, although we should all do a little something (someone could choose to do a big something-Kyoto treaty, perhaps?).

Back in the last millinium, Jimmy Carter said we should turn the heat down a bit and wear a sweater. His ratings went down, but he was right. So, this evening, in a home where Jimmy Carter is given credit for his wisdom, I will add a sweater, turn off the computer, and enjoy the company of my parents who have always kept the heat low. I didn't think so then, but I guess they knew what they were doing all along.

Winning Back the Public Mind

It is well known that the MTEA (Milwaukee Teacher's Education Association) suffered a big blow this fall when an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the School Board's contract proposal. Teachers now are required to pay part of their health insurance premium, and were saddled with a plan that the Union believes (and quite possibly rightfully so) will only solve short-term financial problems within the District, without addressing more pressing long-term questions regarding health-care as a whole.

Personally, I think that the Union not only lost out on the health-care issue, but lost an opportunity to make gains in other areas, because of their inability to take their eyes off the big prize and fight for things that the public as a whole would have been more likely to support. Unfortunately for the Union, their "Attract and Retain" campaign had good intentions behind it (provide a better eduation for children by keeping quality educators in the city), but was perceived by the public at large as a selfish, me first type campaign (We deserve better health insurance than most people because our jobs are hard). As a result of this perception, the Union lost vital support from the public at large in their battle to maintain a compensation package capable of keeping educators from fleeing to easier jobs in the suburbs.

So what now? With another negotiation pending, what can the MTEA do to make some gains for its members. How can teachers change the public's perception back to thinking they are noble civil servants and not a bunch of lazy whiners. I think I have a few ideas. These are ideas that if used by the MTEA, may help change some public perception about teachers and at the same time put money back in teacher's pockets.

Merit for Math: One problem the District is facing is a huge shortage of qualified math and science teachers. While the Union may not be able to convince the public that across the board salary increases for all of its members are in order, I am of the opinion that a more targeted approach might be met with less resistance. In particualar, if a merit component is included.

Fortunately, math is one subject that is not nearly as affected by test bias in the standardized arena. Due to this fact, this is one subject where standarized testing may have some merit. If the Union wishes to help some of its members, this is one area they could target. Why not fight to increase the salary of the District's math teachers, by incorportating a merit component that could add to the salary of those teachers deemed most effective by using a formula that includes standardized test results, evaluations, and also incorportates certain demographic data? This truly would be a campaign to attract qualified educators in an area of desparate need, and would be met with more enthusiasm by the public, since it would be tying pay into performance. The salary increase needn't be punative for those math teachers that are on the lower end of the curve, it would simply serve as incentive for math teachers to stay in the District, and for those already in the District to work harder.

Education for Educators:

Every teacher complains that the classes they need to take for recertification are expensive. This is a legitimate gripe. However, keeping up with current research and trends in education is a vital component to having a vibrant, innovative classroom. Teachers that take challanging classess that force them to collaborate and be inventive in the classroom arena, do become more effective. Why not use this as an area of focus in contract negotiations? The general public may not see teachers having benefits superior to their own as a necessity, but they may be sympathetic to some sort of tuition reimbursement for teachers, partly because it is mandated that teachers take these classes, and also because they really do benefit the kids. Fighting for tuition reimbursement does not appear nearly as self centered as fighting for better salary or medical benefits. But it ultimately it does the same thing. If a teacher were to receive a $1000 credit toward recertification expenses every five years, that's $1000 going directly in their pocket. However, if you fight for this under the guise that it's to improve the teacher's ability to educate children, this goes over a lot better with the public than fighting for things that appear only to benefit the teacher's at an individual level.

Equity in Funding:

Though this component is more of a lobbying effort not directly tied to contract negotiations, it is something that the MTEA should be spending their dollars to fight for. Anyone who has compared North Division to say..Wauwatosa West, can easily determine that Milwaukee's schools are not funded nearly as well. The stark contrast between the many dilapidated schools in Milwaukee compared to their suburban counterparts is stunning.

If there is anything the MTEA could fight for that they might actually be able to get the public to rally behind them on, it's achieving equity in funding between suburban and urban schools. The fact is that the system of property tax funding for schools in inherently unfair. The demographics behind urban schools (generally families with more kids, and households with less money) results in either having urban schools spending way less per pupil than the suburbs, or burdening its tax base with unrealistic expectations. Whether they like it or not, suburban residents do have an interest in whether the children in cities are educated, and if they wish to selfishly keep the keep their taxes within their own small domains, it is only because they can't see the bigger picture (That being vibrant urban areas with well-educated residents that can provide an economic base which allows suburbs to flourish). If the MTEA is smart, it will devote a large amount of it's time and energy to promoting this cause, and if they were successful, they'd find an interesting financial benefit for its members, more money in their pockets, because they'd no longer be forced to spend so much of their own money to create a decent classroom.

It will be interesting to see if the MTEA continues its present strategy of stark, bold, defiance toward everything the Board proposes, or if it gets smart and grabs onto issues that the public would see as having value. The Union has the opportunity to be creative in creating a better working environment for its constituents. Do you agree, disagree, have other ideas? I'd love to see them in the comments section.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Guest Blogger Introduction

Well, I have arrived. While most guest bloggers probably started on the 21st, I was busy riding a dune buggy across the parched sands of Paracas Peru, in transit to my parents from my home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (I could only redeem those frequent flier miles out of Lima.)

My choice as a guest blogger on this site might seem odd. Though I was a teacher in MPS for five years, a certain article of mine that appeared in Milwaukee Magazine prior to the 2004 school year, in which I criticized teachers about complaining about pay, would seem to disqualify me from the ranks of those who could contribute to this site. Nevertheless, I think I can contribute. Another article of mine which appeared in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine examined school-choice, and the real reasons why parents choose schools. (It's not the common myth that the best schools actually get the students)

In particular, I hope to use my time as a guest blogger to examine ways that I think the MTEA can change, to better position itself to garner the support of the Milwaukee community and avoid the difficulties they had in the last contract negotiation. If they're smart, I think they can use their resources to effectively improve the position of public school teachers and children. More tomorrow. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Point Pleasant?

Thanks Jay, for inviting me to guest post while you’re away. I’m usually writing about Wisconsin’s proposed constitutional ban on civil unions and marriage at No On the Amendment, but today I want write about something going on in New Jersey.

Because tonight, as I do every year for Christmas, I will head east to the lovely, ocean-side Point Pleasant, NJ with my partner where her family has lived for more than 40 years.

It is in fact, a pleasant point, and I always look forward to the quiet off-season atmosphere and the excellent seafood. But the last month in Point Pleasant hasn’t been so quiet, and rightfully so.

A woman named Laurel Hester is making as much noise as a person can who is dying of lung cancer. And hundreds of people from around the state are rallying to elevate her voice.

Last year Laurel, who worked in the county prosecutor’s office for 23 years, learned she had terminal cancer. So she approached the five elected “freeholders” (who manage the county) about changing the county rules so that she could leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. Laurel was concerned that when she dies, without her pension Stacy may lose their home.

The county freeholders ignored her request for six months. And then they said no.

First they said no because they were offended by their same-sex relationship. Then they said no because they thought it would cost too much. And finally, they said no to the wheelchair-bound Laurel by escaping a meeting with her through a back door.

In Laurel’s favor, there have been meetings, protests, letter-writing campaigns, and phone calls. But Point Pleasant’s Ocean County won’t budge and are discarding letters and phone calls from out-of-county residents. A call for tourists to boycott the county is the only thing that has moved the freeholders to think a little harder about the issue.

One of the things gay-rights opponents like to throw out is that lesbian and gay couples are only interested in the “benefits” of marriage. You know, things like tax advantages, insurance breaks, property rights and pension benefits.

What they don’t care to think about is that committed lesbian and gay couples are also ready to-- and in fact, already do-- take on the responsibilities of marriage.

Helping your partner through the last months of her life can not be easy. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess that Stacie takes Laurel to the doctor, helps feed and dress her, carries some of the burden of cancer, pays the bills, and works tirelessly to make Laurel’s last days comfortable. These are responsibilities. Big ones.

Stacie deserves the right to visit Laurel in the hospital. She deserves the right to determine how Laurel should be buried. And she most certainly deserves the right to Laurel’s pension—especially since Laurel so obviously wants it this way.

More of Laurel’s story can be found at There is a three-part interview with her, and several articles about the case. It is in depth, it is sad, and it is infuriating. These kinds of stories are happening all over the country, and in Wisconsin. It’s ridiculous that gay and lesbian couples are denied the rights of marriage when they are clearly doing the work of marriage.

Not that defeating our proposed ban will make life any easier for couples with similar stories here in Wisconsin, but beating it will at least show that we have left room for compassion for our Laurels and Stacies.

Friday Random Ten

The ampersand Edition

1. "Srping & All" Mary Chapin Carpenter from Going Driftless
2. "Dogs & Thunder" John Gorka from Old Futures Gone
3. "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold" Townes van Zandt from Live at the Old Quarter
4. "The Princess & the Frog" Michael Smith from Such Things are Finely Done
5. "Me & Albert" Peter Mulvey from Kitchen Radio
6. "9th & Hennepin" Tom Waits from Rain Dogs
7. "Robin & Marian" Nickel Creek from Nickel Creek
8. "Misery & Happiness" Susan Werner from New Non-Fiction
9. "Long & Desperate Day" Bill Camplin from Love Songs and Other Trios
10. "Barricades & Brick Walls" Kasey Chambers from Barricades & Brickwalls

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Shut up," he wrote, and almost immediately regretted it

This is the last long post from me for a little while. My guests should be picking up any minute now, and then, after I post my Friday Random Ten tomorrow, the place will be all theirs.

But I was reminded recently of something I promised I would do. In this post a few weeks back, I celebrated having a letter to the editor printed in the local rag. The letter was a sarcastic (me? sarcastic?) note about the Milwaukee Public Schools Board's approval of a contract extension for our superintendent, including a bigger raise than teachers got in the last contract, and "improvements" to his fringe benefits when teachers had our bennies cut.

In comments to that post, Stephen Paske--who will be stepping in here as a guest poster this coming week--challenged me:
Teachers in MPS are paid very fairly for the amount of work they are required to do. Job security is unmatched. And health benefits are still very good. Why did I leave? Not because of pay (I now teach in Bolivia for far less money), not because of benefits (my healthcare now only covers 80% of my cost the first $5000); why did I leave? Because I was tired of people like the guy who wrote this blog constantly complaining how terrible their lives are. They live outside reality and don't at all appreciate the difficulty most private sector workers face.
Like any other selfish bastard, I was quite offended that someone would stomp into my (internet) house and (metaphorically) pee on the (stretching it here) floor like that, former MPS teacher or no. So I replied in that comments thread, basically saying that no, I'm not just whining about the money. I pointed to a line from this post I did riffing off of Anna Quindlen's essay The Wages of Teaching trying to prove that.

The sub-headline for the Quindlen essay is, in part, "No school administrator should ever receive a percentage raise greater than the raise teachers get," which was a coincidentally perfect dovetail with the issue at hand: Our school administrator got a greater raise than we did. Quindlen's point is that "teachers should have the most powerful group of advocates in the nation: not their union, but we the people, their former students." These former students, she argues, should lobby at every turn not for regimented "accountability," but for support, fair wages, and respect for our most indispensable professionals, professionals who too often lack those three things. I used Quindlen's essay as a jumping off point to talk about the insidious myths that surround teaching: that our "summers off" and such mean we have it easy, and that we mindlessly program robotic students to be cogs in a machine. I don't want more money, I argued in that post, I want the myths to die and the public (and public institutions like Congress) to support the real work of promoting learning among my students. I summed it up this way, in words that, as the title above implies, may have been too strong:

So what do I want, if not money? It's simple: Shut up and let us do our jobs.

That's the line I threw back at Stephen. He responded:
I take issue with your quote from the post you directed me to. [. . .] By virtue of this quote you are saying all that you want is for people to be quiet and let you go about your business as a teacher in a dignified way. However, at the same time, you post a massive blog dedicated to trying to lambast any person that even insuates that teachers are compensated fairly.

You also say that teachers quit the profession because it is hard work. Within your writing it is implied that people might be willing to do such work for better wages (thus higher teacher salaries would attract better teachers), but if hard work is the issue, how is it that many private schools are able to attract talented teachers with far less competitive wages and benefits?

Where the problem lies, is in your allegience to a union that hurts the cause of qualified, hard-working teachers, more than it helps. Indeed, I do believe a math major with excellent grades would make $40,000 a year to start, if every other teacher in every other discipline wasn't required to make an equal amount.

I also believe that if the union didn't lock in every teacher to the same raises based on tenure and experience, and salary were tied to performance, that the district would have a much easier time attracting and retaining talented individuals, because those hard working teachers such as yourself, that are worth it would be fairly compensated, and those that weren't would quit.

As far as the health insurance issue goes, I would love to see the two proposals side by side, and see why the District, interested in saving money, would not accept "The Union's cheaper proposal." I'd also like to see why an independent arbitrator would also conclude that the plan you say is cheaper, would be less financially viable for the district to handle. Seems counter intuative. Personally, I think you've probably been putting a little too much faith in your union bretheren and what they tell you about the plans, and doing too little investigating of independent sources on your own. "The Sharpener" is not an unbiased news source, and therefore should not be where you get all of your information on the health-care plans.

And as far as money goes, and the viability of what I said? You were right, that my wife and I do not currently have children. However, you are quite wrong to insinuate that we had a poor quality of life. We had dinners out, movies, the trips that I mentioned, all while putting on a roof and new windows. Had we had children, yes we would have had to cut out the trips to Greece and Costa Rica and paid off our student loans at a ten year pace instead of early. But our quality of life was good. Better than many of our friends working in the private sector. I've been there Mr.Bullock. I've taught in MPS. I liked my job. So I don't know why everybody always is complaining.
There's a lot in there, and it happened while I was in Ottawa and dealing with coming back and then work and then gearing up for my absence here and . . . Well, I just never got to it. But I'm doing so now.

At the start, Stephen says I lambast those who claim teachers are compensated fairly. I've been at this for nearly three years, so maybe I've forgotten, but I don't think I do that--but only because I don't think I've ever heard anyone, besides Stephen, say that: People come here (and I find them elsewhere) saying that schools have too much money, teachers get too much money, teachers earn too much in benefits. It was a little odd, in fact, when Stephen showed up and said, You guys do just fine. Usually it's variations of the myths I wrote about before.

Private schools retain teachers for a number of reasons, depending on the school; for one, good private schools make it so much easier to do to the difficult job of teaching, primarily because of the freedom that comes from being private. If I could only teach the kids from the University School of Milwaukee, I would gladly do it for less money--though their endowment means that wouldn't happen. Teacher turnover is actually pretty high at some Milwaukee voucher schools.

Stephen's next point is more specifically about salary. Different starting salaries for high-demand teachers is something I've been wondering about, but the whole point of having a strong union is not to keep everyone equal, but to keep the district fair. How would the specialties given higher or lower salaries be determined? At what different rates? At the very least, the union needs to be a part of those negotiations. And as to merit pay--oh, how I wish it were that easy. I've worked with (almost exclusively, come to think of it) principals whom I would not trust to decide my "merit." Test scores? No dice. I often tell the story of my first year of teaching out in the suburbs where, I am ashamed to say, I sucked. Ironically, I am certain the students I taught that year tested far better than the students I'm teaching now that I have my stuff together. And it means an incredibly jacked-up testing schedule and overwhelming pressure to teach to the test. Not that have searched one out with vigor, but I haven't seen a merit-pay proposal that works.

I do like the idea of paying, for example, National Board-Certified teachers bonuses, and for state and federal programs to forgive student loan debt or pay bonuses to attract teachers to needy areas.

There's a question in there about the recent arbitration decision in which the arbitrator chose the district proposal over my union's proposal regarding health care. I won't rehash it all here, but you can read salient posts here, here, and here. In the first of those posts, I actually do the math showing that I'd contribute more toward my health care on the rejected union's plan. A decidedly non-union source, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter told me in an email, "it is true that teachers in general would have paid more under the union's proposal than under the management's proposal, at least in the near future." You can see another reason the union is important in the ongoing talks with other bargaining units, where the district is looking for greater concessions from those who can least afford it.

I'm glad that Stephen and his wife, both MPS teachers, were able live as they did. As I have written, I'm certainly not poor. But I know many teachers--more than a dozen at my school alone--who for whatever reason take second and third jobs. It should not be the case, and I can't say this more simply, that when you are doing the most important job in the country, you should not have to do other jobs, too.

Finally, Stephen implies that I do not like my job, or at least leaves it open to question. I do; I love what I do. What I do not like is the crap I have to wade through to get to the part where I teach the kids and they learn stuff. That's what I was talking about when I said "shut up"--I am sick of the myths and the NCLB testing and the politicians who think they know better and the superintendents who play shuffleboard with schools and principals who care more about planning socials than about curriculum.

Will "Shut up and let us do our jobs" come back to haunt me? I don't know. It certainly is inelegantly worded. There are days when all I want to do is close my classroom door and do my job without all the other stuff. But I usually can't; in the triad of love it, leave it, or change it, I feel compelled to change it. That's why I do this. That's why I persevere.

Will Wisconsin Be Left in the Dust?

Thanks very much to Jay Bullock for inviting me to guest blog this week. My usual gig is with the No on the Amendment campaign.

I can't help but comment on some hopeful international developments.

While we continue to debate whether Wisconsin should permanently ban civil unions and marriage for gay couples, the rest of the world keeps moving forward.

This week, hundreds of lesbian and gay couples in the U.K. lined up to register for a new “civil partnership” that offers many of the protections of marriage. Prime Minister Tony Blair celebrates this historic moment with a column in the Independent. He also took time at a press conference to congratulate Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, who registered their 11-year partnership yesterday. Blair said, “I wish him and David well, and all the other people exercising their rights under the civil partnerships law. I think it is a modern, progressive step for the country, and I am proud we did it."

A New York Times reporter takes a witty look at the event, interviewing a few people on the street near the ceremony who seemed to echo the sentiments of Rita Divico, 59, who said, "If that's what they want to do, it's up to them. If it makes them happy, carry on."

The Czech Republic took a step toward equality this week when the lower house of parliament approved a law to allow for civil partnerships.

And just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of South Africa ruled that banning gay couples from marriage violates that nation’s constitution. It is expected that South African gay couples will be able to legally marry by next year.

Even in conservative Austria, Justice Minister Karin Gastinger, a member of the center-right Alliance for the Future of Austria, is proposing legally recognized partnership for gay couples.

A growing number of nations—like Spain and Canada—already offer either equal marriage rights or some form of civil union. For a look at the national and international landscape, check out this webpage.

When it comes to guaranteeing civil rights and civil liberties for all citizens--or for that matter, being a serious economic player in the global marketplace--Wisconsin is going to be left in the dust unless all of us work hard to stop the proposed civil unions and marriage ban in 2006.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I continue to be a shameless whore for Russ Feingold

A week or ten days ago, I did an interview with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Greg Borowski for a story he's doing on blogs, blogging, and elections, looking ahead to 2006's key races. I talked a little bit about the difference between candidates who treat bloggers like press by dumping release after release into our inboxes and the candidates who actually turn to us for advice and such. Obviously, I prefer the latter.

Russ Feingold is one of the former. If I don't get an email from Russ on any given day, I worry that my connection is down. However, when the man is right, the man is right. The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act revision is dead:
Statement of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold On the Latest Regarding Patriot Act Reauthorization

Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens. I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a 6-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year. This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around.

We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year. As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation 6 months from now. One thing is clear--what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that this conference report is dead.

McIlheran Watch: What a jerk--of the knee, that is

A quick look at the calendar will tell you that it's Wednesday, which means the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is befouled--even more than usual--by the knee-jerk Bush-booster Pat McIlheran. Today, he's off about Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's complaints about Bush Breaking the Law, and, even if he was reasonable last week, today Pat is back to his usual pattern of distortions, lies, and hypocrisy.

The title of today's column--which, admittedly, may not be McIlheran's doing--is "A standing-tall president and a senator's stand-up shtick," clearly meant to draw the line between Bush's wanton law-breaking and Feingold's ability to crystalize the legitimate concerns of a nation into a few good zingers. Russ has been just about everywhere on this issue, continuing to be the leading voice for civil liberties in the Senate. That's where Pat starts his criticism:
Feingold's been popping up on television with easily digested quips--how original of him to realize that the deplored monarch and the current president have the same first name!--as he tries to confect national outrage about news that the president has asked the nation's radio eavesdropping agency to monitor cell phones.

This is a return to Feingold's first strength. The man won his seat with witty television ads. Only later did he follow the senator-from-Wisconsin tradition of becoming a one-issue drone. Commies and earth-hugging already had been done, so he made a point of being a "maverick," which is advocating positions just because they are novel. As a result, we have campaign finance laws somehow more convoluted and incumbent-protecting than before.

But that glow is fading. Feingold must find new feedstock for his outspokenness. Derailing the USA Patriot Act over the sanctity of library logs satisfied his base, those people who pet themselves with the label "progressive." The wet blanket that The New York Times threw over the triumph of the Iraqi election, this revelation the feds were spying on possible terrorists, provides a wider audience.

So Feingold rants about abuse of power. Democrats fall in line, since nothing unites them so much as dislike of the president. Some Republicans do, too, since congressmen distrust presidential prerogative. Finally, some serious thinkers have valid doubts about the wisdom of federal eavesdropping.
There's typically a fish-in-a-barrel feeling that comes from critiquing McIlheran's prose, and today's colum--even just this passage--is no exception:
  • National outrage exists over the revelations of domestic spying in violation of the law, and it would exist without Russ Feingold. The Idaho Statesman, for example--not a paper you might associate with the loony left or one that likely takes its cues from Feingold-- called for a "serious" investigation into the legality of the matter. The Idaho frickin' Statesman!
  • I'll save the campaign-finance fight for another day, but Pat mocks Russ for being a "maverick," insults generations of Wisconsin senators as "one-issue drones." With the death of William Proxmire still fresh on our minds, it's a little insulting to dismiss the kind of principled consistency Proxmire pioneered and Fiengold maintains. (Joe McCarthy's single-mindedness was a result of drinking-induced paranoia, but that, as they say, is another show.) If Feingold's positions were truly "novel," the Congress would not have passed campaign-finance and Bush would not have signed it. A large, bipartisan group of senators would not have acted in concert last week to stop the renewal of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Sounds to me like Russ is a leader, not a novelty.
  • The New York Times did not publish the story of warrantless domestic wiretaps to throw a "wet blanket" over anything, let alone to boost Russ, as he implies. "The publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim's forthcoming book or any other event," [Times publisher Bill Keller said in a statement. "We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because, after listening respectfully to the administration's objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it."
  • Where was McIlheran when nothing united the right so much as dislike of Clinton? Maybe he could have stopped that impeachment, too . . . And it's very clever how Pat dismisses the concerns of such petty Congress critters as Arlen Specter and Lindsay Graham as a "distrust of presidential prerogative." Maybe McIlheran needs to re-read his Constitution (Congress gets Article ONE on purpose, yo) and the Federalist Papers, to get a flavor of what real "distrust of presidential prerogative" sounds like.
McIlheran then launches into a spirited, if misguided, defense of Bush's indefensible lawbreaking:
Considering those doubts in a grown-up way begins with clarity about what was done. [. . .] Had NSA eavesdropped on suspects who were both outside the U.S., there'd be no issue. The hallmark attack of the present war on jihadists took place here. Our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have found cell phones and computers and slips of paper with contact numbers in the U.S. So lawmakers now denouncing this "domestic spying" as a power grab need to explain why it's acceptable to spy on al-Qaida overseas but not when one of the al-Qaida suspects is here.

Of course the government was wiretapping suspects. This revelation was surely a reassurance to the majority of Americans who, sensibly, can distinguish between a government that spies for political advantage and one that spies on cross-border belligerent conspiracies. The former is the baseless insinuation by the president's foes; the latter is the president's obligation under the Constitution--something asserted with equal vigor by President Clinton--and under Congress' explicit instruction in the wake of 9-11.

Nor can Feingold's threat of a special prosecutor be taken as a sign of adulthood. The claim that President Bush broke the law ignores entirely Bush's legal justification for ignoring the Carter-era law that his critics are talking about.
So now he's calling Feingold juvenile? That's mighty grown-up behavior for a big-boy columnist, isn't it? He also takes the grown-up tactic of the false analogy: Spying overseas is not like spying at home--which isn't really supposed to happen (though someone needs to tell the FBI and the DoD.) And no one, particularly not Russ Feingold, has criticized the right of the administration to gather intelligence abroad--as long as it is not gathered--as that other "maverick," John McCain, has requested--through torture.

Instead, Americans and their Congress critters are concerned about spying on "U.S. persons," as they're called, including citizens of these United States. The rights of "U.S. persons" are protected by this thing called the Constitution, and under statutes passed by the U.S. Congress, including the now-infamous FISA. McIlheran makes two points in the quoted section (and a third that I'll quote in a moment), that Clinton did it (for hating Clinton so much, the right seems to use him as justification an awful lot) and that Congress authorized the questionable program. Both are, whaddyacallem? Lies.

Clinton's executive order "requires the Attorney General to certify [that] the search will not involve 'the premises, information, material, or property of a United States person.' ” That's kind of the opposite of the situation we're talking about now. And Congress did not explicitly allow the president to circumvent the FISA courts in its 2001 use of force authorization. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales cited that resolution in defending the program that he no doubt green-lighted as White House Council. But when pressed, Gonzales admitted "that the administration discussed introducing legislation explicitly permitting such domestic spying but decided against it because it 'would be difficult, if not impossible' to pass." In other words, Congress, thinking it was voting to authorize war on Afghanistan and al Qaeda, would have rejected explicit language giving the president the authority to do what he's doing now.

McIlheran then cites a widespread defense of the program: "Bush makes the case, as have previous presidents, that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 'could not encroach on the president's constitutional power,' as it was put by federal judges ruling on the issue in 2002." Surprisingly, I'm turning to a conservative legal scholar here, Orin Kerr:
So the argument, as I understand it, is that Congress has no power to legislate in a way that inteferes with the President's Commander-in-Chief power, a judgment made, I suppose, by the President himself.

I have been unable to find any caselaw in support of this argument. Further, the argument has no support from the cases cited in the government's brief. In all three of those cases--Butenko, Truong, and Keith--the Courts were talking about whether the President's interest in conducting foreign intelligence monitoring creates an exception to the Warrant Requirement of the Fourth Amendment. In other words, the issue in those case was whether the Constitution bars warrantless surveillance absent Congressional action, not whether Congressional prohibitons in this area cannot bind the Executive branch.
Kerr even quotes one of the Supreme Court cases the FISA court--the court that produced the quote in the blast-fax talking points McIlheran has cribbed from. The Justices wrote (my bold), "the courts should not require the executive to secure a warrant each time it conducts foreign intelligence surveillance." In other words, there may eventually be a question of whether FISA itself is unconstitutional, but the administration seems not to have advanced that argument.

Remember, the FISA statutes are very broad: There is nothing that prevents immediate and expeditious surveillance, as long as the administration goes to the court within 72 hours for a retroactive warrant. And given that the FISA court's warrant approval rate is literally like 99.99%, it seems like there shouldn't be any problems there. That the administration just decides it doesn't feel like it needs to follow that law (though Bush dissembled about it in 2004) is just scary. Makes you wonder why they bother to fight Congress on any law, if they think they can just ignore them anyway. (Also see Ben's “They feel they’ve participated in a Potemkin court.”)

McIlheran saves my favorite part for last:
Had Congress, whose leaders knew about this surveillance all along, been serious about the law, they would have asked why our eavesdroppers found it impossibly cumbersome to get the warrants critics say are so easily granted. Bush says the law, which predates cell phones, imposes unacceptable delays, and the 9-11 commission cited it as an ongoing roadblock.
This administration does nothing quite so well as blame Congress. It never fails to amaze me how a Republican president can blame so much on a Republican Congress. For example, a month ago, when the administration was taking flak over the abuse and misuse of intelligence in the run-up to Iraq, they said "Congress saw the same intelligence we did." That, of course, was a lie. The whole "Congress knew all along" about the wiretaps is just as much of a lie. See, for example, statements from Sen. Rockefeller or leader Pelosi. I like Harry Reid's statement best:
First, it is quite likely that 96 Senators of 100 Senators, including 13 of 15 on the Senate Intelligence Committee first learned about this program in the New York Times, not from any Administration briefing.

I personally received a single very short briefing on this program earlier this year prior to its public disclosure. That briefing occurred more than three years after the President said this program began.

The Administration briefers did not seek my advice or consent about the program, and based on what I have heard publicly since, key details about the program apparently were not provided to me.

Under current Administration briefing guidelines, members of Congress are informed after decisions are made, have virtually no ability to either approve or reject a program, and are prohibited from discussing these types of programs with nearly all of their fellow members and all of their staff.
Moreso, here's the big flaw in McIlheran's argument: He is contradicting himself. Either FISA can't stop the administration from doing this wiretapping, in which case Congress can't do a thing, or FISA prohibits the administration from doing it, and Congress needs to remove the "ongoing roadblock." Make up your mind, Pat, and once you've done that--and gotten your facts straight--try again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

People get tax bills, get happy

Or at least, that's what the poll numbers seem to say. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (AKA J-Dizzle, peeps) has seen an utter reversal in the lastest monthly installment of SurveyUSA's tracking poll. Wisconsinites now approve of the Dizzle by a margin of 48%-44%. Here's the pretty picture:

As we noted last month, since SUSA started the poll in May, there has been basically just staistical noise, with J-Dizzle's negatives generally topping his positives but all within a small band of four or five points either way. This is the first time, however, that the positives have been higher, and the only reason I can think why this may be true--it certainly isn't because the Packers are putting us in a good mood--is that Doyle actually did generally hold the line on property taxes. (See Xoff for more on that.)

Again, in the breakout numbers, the Dizzle has room to improve among self-identified "liberals" and "Democrats," as well as lots of ground to gain among "moderates" and "Independents." But what's encouraging is that among those on the left, the numbers are a lot better than they were last month, with only 29% of "liberals" disapproving, and 26% of "Democrats." If those numbers keep going down, with some more spare headway in the middle, then this may not be as close an election as people thought.

Unregulated Voucher Schools Continue . . . Unregulated

I mentioned this previously, but today's paper has the full story that two voucher schools clamped down on by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction have won their appeals, and will be able to get some of your hard-earned tax money despite only tenuous evidence that they actually are "schools":
The state Department of Public Instruction acted in October to remove the two schools, Dr. Brenda Noach Choice School and L.E.A.D.E.R. Institute, from the program, saying they fell short of meeting the legal definition of a private school.

The two schools appealed, and the hearing examiner ruled that the Noach school uses a curriculum that meets legal requirements for showing it offers fundamental instruction in six subjects and that the L.E.A.D.E.R. school offers at least 875 hours of instruction a year. The DPI action was based on arguing the schools had failed to meet those points.

But L.E.A.D.E.R., 2200 N. King Drive, was not left completely in the clear. Its case for showing it met the minimum number of hours was based on having a year-round schedule, including days in the summer. [. . .] Thomas Erickson, the attorney for the Noach school, said the problem began when school officials had misunderstood what they had to supply to the DPI officials.
The Noach school, by the way, is in its fourth year as a voucher school, so if they are still "misunderstanding" what they have to do to get their voucher payments, I hate to see how much they are still "misunderstanding" when it comes to teaching the kids. And L.E.A.D.E.R. will not get its disbursement until it pays back about $130,000 of your tax money that it collected inappropriately over the last two years.

I suppose you could argue that the very fact that I am able to post this, and that we can have this conversation, shows that voucher schools really are regulated. To that, I say poppycock. For one, here we are 16 years into this grand experiment and just this year we finally have some slight challenges to some of the worst offenders in the program. For two, this is not regulation in any meaningful sense of the word: Holding back voucher monies until the right numbers show up on the right paperwork is nothing at all like accountability or oversight, and to suggest that somehow the results of this fall's attempted crackdown by DPI is somehow proof that all is well with the program is absurd.

I should point out this week's other voucher news, which should leave you equally disturbed. The paper reported Saturday that one of the two Mercedes Benzes purchased with your tax dollars by the former head of the Mandela School was finally auctioned off, allowing officials to pay a whopping 14% of the back pay owed to the teachers screwed by the school.

The former students of that school still have not gotten back that year of their lives.

Monday, December 19, 2005

War on Christmas Update: Santarchy!

Those engaged in the GWOX (Global War on Christmas) have their own uniformed army, as it turns out. It's all about Santarchy, it seems:
Every December, for the last 12 years, Cacophonous Santas have been visiting cities around the world and generating a bit of naughty Christmas fun as part of the annual Santacon events. It all started back in 1994 when several dozen Cheap Suit Santas paid a visit to downtown San Francisco for a night of Kringle Kaos. Things have reached Critical Xmas and Santarchy is now a global phenomenon.
In fact, over the weekend, these merry soldiers launched a massive offensive in New Zealand:
A group of 40 people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, many of them drunk, went on a rampage through Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, robbing stores, assaulting security guards and urinating from highway overpasses, police said Sunday.

The rampage, dubbed "Santarchy," began early Saturday afternoon when the men, wearing ill-fitting Santa costumes, threw beer bottles and urinated on cars from an overpass, said Auckland Central Police spokesman Noreen Hegarty.
And there's more--but only read it if you think you can stomach the atrocities. (And read how it was probably overblown in the media.)

And that's not even considering that New Zealand can't even celebrate Christmas right; the forecast for Auckland today says that those Kiwis are expecting Thunderstorms and a high of 73 degrees. You can't celebrate Christmas in weather like that! Heathens!

One more question for Senator Fitzgerald

There is something I forgot to mention the other day when I debunked this essay from Wisconsin state senator Scott Fitzgerald about the Hate Amendment that would write a ban on gay marriage and civil unions of all sorts into our state constitution.

Fitzgerald wrote,
Marriage is one of the fundamental bedrocks of our society and deserves to be preserved as a union between one man and one woman. The people of Wisconsin have spoken through their state legislators that they want traditional marriage protected.
So, here's my question, Senator Fitzgerald: Given that Republicans in the legislature could easily have taken up the Hate Amendment in January of this year, after the new legislature was seated, and could really have had it passed and on the ballot for voters in April of this year; and give your insistence that "traditional marriage" needs protecting and how urgent the matter is given the perilously liberal state of our courts; what does it say about your committment to protecting marriage that you are delaying this until November 2006?

In other words, Senator Fitzgerald, what's more important to you, protecting marriage, or the political advantage to Republicans of having this amendment share the ballot with the governor's race? Because it sure looks like your urgency is phony, and I'm not sure that an honest answer--that Republicans are playing politics with this vital moral question--would sit well with your base.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bush Breaks Law, Dog Bites Man

So Bush is spying on US citizens in clear violation of the fourth amendment and FISA statutes. I just can't pretend I'm surprised.

Ben in Madison can get the outrage up, though, with a couple of good posts to read: This One Goes to Eleven and The Bill of Particulars.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Debunking Arguments for the Hate Amendment, Part Three

This time it's Wisconsin state senator Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the Hate Amendment. He is one of a number of elected officials posting this week at Boots and Sabers while Owen is away. His essay is a defense of the amendment, a defense predicated on lies, misrepresentations, and a little bit of smoke and mirrors. It really shouldn't be this easy to take down an elected official.

He begins by explaining how burdensome the amendment process is--lest anyone think we're being capricious and hasty here. The he explains why he thinks that an amendment is necessary:
This is not a debate we’re having being we went looking for or wanted it.  It’s one we’re having because we have no choice.  Marriage is under attack by activist judges from out of state who want to impose their extreme liberal views on the people of Wisconsin, and we must defend our laws and our traditions.

Because of a 2003 ruling by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court invalidating that state’s statutory prohibition against same sex marriage, any state that does not define marriage as a union between one man and one woman included in their state constitution could be forced to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts, regardless of whether or not those states already have laws on the books to limit marriage to a union between one man and one woman.
Are the alarms going off in your head, too? In two short paragraphs, Fitzgerald has managed to squeeze in alarmist codewords, some name-calling, and a lot of fear mongering. Fitzgerald mentions the Massachusetts case that has the conservatives so exercised, and leads you to believe that Wisconsin is in danger of falling prey to the same kind of "activist judges" with "extreme liberal views" that brought down the fire and brimstone upon the Bay State. Here are the things Fitzgerald gets wrong:
  • The Massachusetts judges were not liberal extremists. In fact, six of the seven judges on the court--and three of the four in the majority on the Goodridge decision--were appointed by Republican governors. Fitzgerald is distorting fact here.
  • Wisconsin is not required to recognize gay marriages performed in Massachusetts, and will not as long as the Defense of Marriage Act remains the law of the land. Fitzgerald is trying to scare you.
  • Wisconsin's "laws and traditions," I hate to tell the senator, are ones of acceptance, tolerance, and progressivism. We do not, in this state, have a history of bigotry and discrimination. Despite what the current Republican leadership is trying to do to us, Wisconsin has always been on the leading edge of liberal values.
Fitzgerald's misdirection doesn't stop there, though. He continues with a dodge that we've seen before:
The proposed constitutional amendment would not prohibit state or local governments or a private entity from setting up a legal construct to provide privileges or benefits such as health insurance benefits, pension benefits, joint tax return filing or hospital visitation to same-sex or unmarried couples.
As I pointed out the other day, there is absolutely no reason why gay and lesbian couple should have to wait for the legislature or anyone else to deign to grant them rights and privileges given to heterosexual couples by default. This is nothing but an attempt to create a set of second class citizens, something that does not fit in with Wisconsin's "laws and traditions." But, speaking of tradition, Fitzgerald returns to a theme from earlier:
Like Wisconsin, Massachusetts had a statutory ban on same-sex marriage, but a single court ruling wiped that law off the books and legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts.  A similar ruling by our state Supreme Court would do the same here.  An amendment to the Wisconsin constitution is the only sure-fire way to preserve marriage here and protect our traditions from attacks by activist judges and local officials in other states.
It's important for us to remember something: The Massachusetts ruling was based on a specific provision of that state's constitution--a provision not in Wisconsin's. Again, Fitzgerald is bending fact to try to scare Wisconsin voters: A Wisconsin court would have little justification for ruling our statute unconstitutional right now. And remember that our judges are elected, not appointed for life as Massachusetts judges are, so the justices would in fact be accountable should they rule in a way that violates the sensibilities of enough voters. Finally, the nut:
Marriage is one of the fundamental bedrocks of our society and deserves to be preserved as a union between one man and one woman.  The people of Wisconsin have spoken through their state legislators that they want traditional marriage protected.
At no point does Fitzgerald offer any reason for why marriage should remain as "between one man and one woman," or explain what advantage there is to preserving a system to confers rights on some but not all. If marriage is indeed a bedrock of society, should we not concern ourselves with ensuring that it is strong and available to as many members of society as possible? Or, at the very least, should we not be using our limited legislative resources to focus on ways to make existing marriages stronger? Defeating this constitutional amendment does nothing to weaken marriage, and passing it does nothing to make marriage stronger. If Fitzgerald really wanted to be doing the people's business, he'd stop wasting his time with scare tactics and lies.

Guest Posters Coming Soon

In less than a week, I will be taking a leave of absence, walking away from a lot of stress, bother, busywork, and even the internet. I've invited a number of people whom I respect and whose work and reputations I enjoy to step in while I step out. Over the next few days, each of these individuals will be popping in to introduce themselves, and gradually I will just disappear until 2006.

They are, in no particular order:
  • My state representative, Josh Zepnick
  • Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and friend of mine In Real Life Sarah Fadness
  • Freelance writer and frequent commenter on this very blog Stephen Paske
  • Political consultant, Bay Viewer, and fellow Beloit alum Zak Williams
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and Wisconsin 5th Congressional candidate Bryan Kennedy
  • Joshua and Ingrid of Action Wisconsin's No on the Amendment
I hope that you will treat them well, because I know that their work here over the next fortnight or so will be a treat for you.

Friday, December 16, 2005

RIP, Leo McGarry

John Spencer, who plays Leo McGarry on "The West Wing," has died--ironically, of a heart attack--today at age 58. When Jed Bartlet is your president, you come to count on his chief of staff being there. He will be missed.