Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More helpful hints for deciding "What are the consequences?" and "What do they mean?"

A few months ago, during the height of the debate across Wisconsin about our Governor's then-proposed "budget repair bill," I wrote an informal blog post entitled Helpful hints for deciding “What is happening?” and “Where do I stand?” in which I detailed one example of how an interested student, activist, worker, or citizen might wade through the complex and contradictory media environment in order to learn about the context, meaning, and ramifications of this bill -- and hopefully come to some informed, if provisional, opinion on its merit. I was surprised and pleased to see that my little blog post circulated not only through my own civic and intellectual community here in Madison, but across the state and beyond. (Just this week I found out that it will be used as part of an exercise in a media literacy course up in the Twin Cities next semester.)

Today, after a long but historic season of public protests and political maneuvers which brought out both the best and the worst of our system of governance, both the budget repair bill and the larger budget bill that it heralded are now law. The media discourse has subsequently shifted into two new parallel tracks. One of these tracks builds directly on the first: it follows the continued public action and political posturing as Wisconsin works through an unprecedented series of recall elections targeting both Democratic and Republican state legislators in various districts across the state -- districts that are themselves now subject to accelerated and, arguably, partisan redistricting proposals by the current Republican legislative majority. But the other track is new, as it deals with the short-term and long-term consequences of the new laws themselves. In short, are they working? And if so, for whom?

This is not merely an academic question. The degree to which voters will be motivated to participate in recall elections -- in this round or in future rounds next year, for or against incumbents -- depends on how they feel that they, or their interests, or their families, or their neighbors, or their communities have been affected by the many new service cuts, corporate subsidies, local government restrictions and collective bargaining dilutions mandated by the two budget bills. Our local media is charged with seeking out and representing those community reactions and examples -- and with doing the difficult work of fairly and proportionately representing them back to the rest of us, rather than engaging in easy "one side said this, and the other side said that" equivalencies. Our regional and national media are similarly charged with putting our local situations into wider context, demonstrating how success stories in one site might connect to stories of greater hardship in another site, in complex and even contradictory ways. In other words, we still need to follow this story -- and we may still need some tools and tricks in order to follow it carefully and thoroughly enough to come to our own decisions about "What are the consequences?" and "What do they mean?"

This need was brought home to me last week when a friend of mine from Illinois -- I think it's fair to classify her as an "independent" and "moderate" -- forwarded to me a link to an online article she had read about our situation in Wisconsin. It was written by Byron York of the Washington Examiner. The headline? "Union curbs rescue a Wisconsin school district." Here, in part, is what the article claimed:

Now the bill is law, and we have some very early evidence of how it is working. And for one beleaguered Wisconsin school district, it's a godsend, not a disaster.

The Kaukauna School District, in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin near Appleton, has about 4,200 students and about 400 employees. It has struggled in recent times and this year faced a deficit of $400,000. But after the law went into effect, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, school officials put in place new policies they estimate will turn that $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. And it's all because of the very provisions that union leaders predicted would be disastrous.

My friend simply asked me "what's missing from this account?" which struck me as exactly the right question to ask about this, or any, claim of success or failure of the Wisconsin budget bills. My reaction when reading something like this is usually to break it down by (a) who's reported it, (b) what's the source of the report, (c) what's missing from the report, and (d) what are the implications of the report if it is true. What follows is my own path in trying to answer these questions.

(a) Who reported it? My quick web search (yes, including a Wikipedia query) indicates that the Washington Examiner is owned by the same parent company as the Weekly Standard; both are clearly marketed as conservative media outlets. The columnist, Byron York, was previously a writer for the National Review (a well-known journal of conservative political thought) and published a book in 2005 titled The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. So from the outset, I wouldn't expect either this newspaper or this opinion columnist to be favorable to the cause of WI union members -- just as I wouldn't expect a partisan columnist writing at the Nation, a well-known journal of progressive political thought, to be favorable to Governor Walker. (That doesn't mean that I would dismiss something written in either the Washington Examiner or the Nation on this basis; for full disclosure, I subscribe to the Nation and find it to be mostly very insightful and informative. But it's usually good to know at the outset whether a journalist self-affiliates with a particular worldview or cause, and whether a particular article or news outlet generally fits in with the political assumptions of its target audience, or challenges them.)

(b) What's the source of the report? As far as I can tell, the column does not represent any original reporting at all, but is simply a summary of a press release from the Kaukauna school district, which hit the internet three days before and was promoted by the district's Republican state representative Jim Steineke, a self-described Tea Party candidate who wants to abolish the corporate income tax, among other positions. (A Google search of some of the keywords in the original report led me quickly to the press release.) I could find no information on whether the majority of the school board members who set this policy and issued the press release are Tea Party members or progressives, but that would be something interesting to seek out.

(c) What's missing? Given the outlet and the source, it's not surprising to me that neither the column in the Examiner nor the original press release explores what teachers, residents, or students say about the issue. A Google News search of the rather unique keyword "Kaukauna" led me to other press reports on the district's situation. I found one report from a Green Bay television station that mentioned briefly the teacher reaction. The teacher quoted points to the lack of prep time when teachers are expected to handle more classes. The Appleton Post-Crescent report on the story includes the interesting tidbit that "In April, the school board rejected a proposal from the Kaukauna Education Association [the union] to extend the union’s contract and incorporate pension and healthcare concessions along with a wage freeze, a move the union projected could save the district about $1.8 million next year." (I find it interesting that $1.8 million is greater than $1.5 million.) The best contextual summary I could find was at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website which made it clear that across all of Wisconsin, 410 out of the state's 424 school districts will receive less money under the whole budget plan, and the Governor's budget even prevents local communities from voting their own property tax increases. Here in Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal (if anything, a "moderate" news source, branded against the overtly "progressive" Capital Times) detailed the cuts to our school district and reminded readers that we in Madison were in no way "bloated" to begin with, as four years ago we had been cut even more.

(d) What if it's true? In other words, how do we interpret the reported effects back in Kaukauna? This is perhaps the hardest question, and I've saved it for last. We can get part of the answer from current media reports, but a fuller analysis demands deeper investigation -- reading a book on the history or current working of the education system (a good start might be Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System), or talking to some education professionals themselves (such as the folks at our own Wisconsin Center for Education Research). My take is based on nearly two decades of graduate education and university work in which issues of public education have continually connected with my own research and teaching -- in other words, consider me not an "expert" but an "informed layperson." Like many taxpayers and parents, at first glance I think that creating smaller class sizes and saving public money both sound great. But with the same amount of teachers, working longer hours and teaching more periods during the day, how is this not simply a work speedup and a wage cut? Teachers aren't assembly line workers. They're not performing unskilled labor at the rhythm of a machine that can be tweaked to get a better quota with less cost. Teachers are supposedly the ones who have the education, training, and experience to make decisions -- together -- about the best strategies for education children. School boards, though, are often comprised of politically motivated citizens, on both sides of the aisle, who are elected by very small groups of highly partisan voters and are often bringing ideological agendas to the table (like debates over the teaching of evolution in the classroom). Personally, based on what I know about the public education system and what I know from teachers I've met in my career, I'd rather trust the judgment of the teachers when it comes to structuring the school day and making educational curriculum and staffing decisions. But in any case, if you cut teacher wages and increase their hours, you're making it a less attractive job. You will get what you pay for, in the end -- just like the free market theory would predict. And if your goal is the privatization of public school education, as is the stated goal of most Tea Party groups that I've looked at, well, you've just taken a significant step toward that. So my tentative assessment? There's much more to this story, and to call out any such dramatic "success" is, at best, premature.

You may not share this conclusion. That's understandable if your own experience, your own circle of experts that you trust, and your own intellectual background is different than my own. Having an effective and responsible media doesn't demand that we all agree. But it does demand that we talk to each other rather than past each other, that we understand different perspectives rather than dismissing them, and that we wrestle with serious evidence and analysis rather than accepting easy "common sense" assumptions or solutions. Good media outlets -- like good schools and universities -- dig for that evidence and work through that analysis, forcing us to challenge each other (and ourselves). Poor media outlets give us the answers we already think we know, served up with a generous side-order of flattery.

No matter what you might have imagined would happen after these budget bills were signed, I hope this brief blog post helps you find your way through the many complex and, yes, contradictory results that the media will both report and ignore over the next few months. It's an important story for the audiences to demand that the analysts follow.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:29 PM

    From a Kaukauna teacher, thank you for pointing out the missing information in this "success" story!!