I was recently asked my opinion on a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog post, “What is driving Scott Walker’s war on Wisconsin Universities.” As the person asking my opinion obviously knew, budgetary changes in higher education interest me on many levels. One, I teach public budgeting, two, I have considerable professional experience in the field, and three, UW cuts personally impact my ability to serve my customers…i.e. the students paying for an education.
Personally I am opposed to the UW-System cuts, decreasing investment in higher education creates short-term management challenges for Wisconsin universities, and is impossible to justify as a long-term strategy for strengthening the UW-System…especially when the corresponding flexibilities were removed from the budget. Of course, my opinions on this are hardly surprising given my place of employment. What really caught my eye in this post was the attempt to paint Scott Walker as a puppet for special interests. Simply, I do not think is the case, and more importantly, the attempt to make this case detracts from the legitimate arguments of Walker opponents.
The blog post in question makes a big deal about the Bradley Foundation and the organizations it has funded over the years. (Full disclosure, I am the former Research Director of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, one of the organizations discussed in the article). I get why the author makes a big deal about the Bradley Foundation, the foundation is a big deal. It funds organizations and causes it believes in, some controversial, some not. This is pretty much what a foundation does regardless of their core philosophies, so it should not be surprising. The author specifically cites a 1994 magazine article written by the now deceased former head of the Bradley Foundation as evidence that the foundation is driving Walker’s current position on the UW-System. I find it hard to believe that Walker’s most recent budget is at all informed by a 20-year old magazine article. The author goes on:
Walker is executing the Bradley Foundation’s ideological crusade to undermine institutions that serve the public instead of exploit them for profit. In Walker’s war, economic development is no longer a tool to create jobs, grow business, and support the middle class, but is instead just a giveaway for his wealthy donors to profit from taxpayer dollars. Neighborhood schools and the students who attend them are sacrificed for the profits of the unaccountable voucher school industry. Rules regarding public health and safety are cast aside, replaced with the demands of special interests and corporations. According to the vision of the Bradley Foundation, public policy and public services are sacrificed for profit and exploitation.
This is over the top on many levels. I do not claim to be in the head of Scott Walker, but isn’t it possible that he takes positions on issues because he supports them, whether or not the Bradley Foundation or anyone else supports them? Isn’t it possible that the majority of voters in Wisconsin, who keep electing Walker, do so because they support these positions too? Not because they are stupid, or because they are being duped, but because they made a rationale decision based on their core beliefs and outlook on life? I am burying the main point, but here is where I am going with this, it is unproductive and divisive to assume the views of politicians or citizens with whom you disagree are illegitimate. Doing so makes any serious discussion or progress on policy issues impossible. It also takes attention away from Scott Walker’s very real flaws.
A compelling case against Scott Walker as Governor (or president) is fairly straightforward to make. The debacle of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation displays a serious management deficiency. His scattershot K-12 education policies suggest he has no clear vision for K-12 education; thereby ensuring progress will not be made. His post Act-10 approach to budgeting is jeopardizing what could have been a public management revolution. His policy positions on hot-button issues are becoming embarrassingly reactive. I could go on. The point is, focusing on theories of who controls Scott Walker means we are not focusing on issues that have a real impact on the future of Wisconsin. All that guarantees is more division, and less progress.