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Fear and Loathing of a Blue Wave in Wisconsin: Scott Walker Reprises his Class Warfare Against Schools and Teachers

Photo by montegoodyk | CC BY 2.0

Billionaire “Oracle from Omaha,” Warren Buffett, once retorted with a dismissive huff to the charge that the left is launching a class warfare with, “there is a class warfare alright and it is my class that is winning.” Buffet is rich, but realizes the United States is racing headlong towards reprising Dickensian levels of inequality. This is bad for both the economy and for the country.

Opposing Buffet’s view are America’s billionaire titans of dirty industry, the Koch Brothers. Their butler (a veritable “Smithers”) installed in the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion, is Scott Walker. While the billionaire brothers from Wichita celebrate growing inequality, Wisconsin’s Governor is more pure: he loves power for its own sake. Governor Walker revealed his hand early in office in recorded conversation with his billionaire patroness, Diane Hendricks. “Diane,” a self-described “self-made woman,” made her fortune the old-fashioned way: largely marrying it. While reluctant to comment on the appearance of others (that of the authors’ is nothing to brag about), Ms. Hendricks, a plastic surgery artiste, has produced a look that is one part Cruella Deville and the other half Alice Cooper that artfully combines to complement her politics. Her other hobby horse is Scott Walker, who uses her $billions to fund attacks on Wisconsin workers. Wisconsin’s Governor presents himself as the proverbial everyman driving a used Saturn to work, while subsisting on a daily routine of paper-sacked ham sandwich lunches. In reality one means of conveyance for Governor Walker is Ms. Hendrick’s private jet, and surely he is not feeding on rendered lunch meats sandwiched between slices of Wonder Bread. For Walker, trying to kill off teachers’ unions was simply about starving his political opposition: Democrats, who receive union funding. No union is perfect, but on balance teacher unions advance the cause of students and teachers against those wishing to silence them. Walker’s move against teachers was entirely Nixonian in its cynicism and execution, as former White House Counsel (John Dean) to President Richard Nixon said of Walker’s character, he “is more Nixonian than Nixon.”

The Koch Brothers assault on teachers targeted states in economic decline. States from, West Virginia, to Kentucky, to Kansas were fertile soil into which the Kochs sowed their seeds of reactionary populism. In 2011, Wisconsin’s public worker uprising made national news as an early entrant in the struggle against dirty Koch-fueled austerity, but was a political failure. Massive right-wing dark money, combined with local talk radio targeting angry suburbanites in SUV’s stuck commuting on clogged arterial highways (pun intended, this is Wisconsin), transformed once wholesome Norman Rockwell images of teachers, and re-branded them as “thugs” and “greedy elites.” But, several years of trashing teachers and schools has grown thin with electorates expecting prosperity rather than continued declining living standards. At the start of this year Wisconsin median inflation adjusted wages were lower than when Walker took office seven years back, while neighboring Minnesota, which rejected GOP austerity, has seen strong wage growth. Teachers in Wisconsin are now more effectively fighting back against slashed school budgets and increasingly parents are joining them.

As the Wisconsin GOP senses the political tide turning in November 2018, they are redoubling their attacks on teacher unions to keep their suburban Milwaukee “angry base” intact. A favored GOP tactic for ginning up hostility in the suburbs is to focus attacks on urban (read: black) Milwaukee from which suburbanites once came. In 1970, Milwaukee had median wages 30% above the national average. Today, its median wages are 30% under the national average. De-industrialization hit Milwaukee hard. The white working class largely abandoned the city, thus leaving the city further segregated and increasingly poor. Communities dissolved under the acid of unemployment and low wages for those remaining. Discrimination, wage inequality, deindustrialization and welfare dependency all combined to destabilize many Milwaukee communities. Milwaukee’s socio-economic and cultural challenges are immense, yet teachers are blamed for not being able to single-handedly fix the damage inflicted on the city by the above mentioned structural forces. Yet, schools are the primary institution working to create upward mobility for the urban poor. The work of teaching is hard, and in some schools, occasionally dangerous. Newly minted teachers frequently fail in an environment where the state government, much of the media and even school administrators are hostile to teachers. Meanwhile, kids and parents range from supportive, to indifferent, to hostile to teachers.

Teacher attrition was already high in Milwaukee. Fifty percent of new teachers were leaving this tough job within five years of starting even before introduction of GOP austerity and “reforms.” In Milwaukee this is getting worse since Governor Walker implemented his “tools.” Yet, the Governor’s tools, referenced recently by former Wisconsin GOP staffer and columnist Christian Schneider in Wisconsin’s paper of record, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, noted average Milwaukee public school teachers “earned more than $100,000 per year in pay and benefits.” Schneider’s statement is one part canard and one part alchemy. He derives this number by adding together the costs, including all benefits, associated with the hiring of hiring many professionals. While true that MPS teachers had good health insurance, this is because they traded future wage gains for maintaining benefits. Teachers chose the well-being of their family’s health over salary, only to have that choice used to cheat them out of those benefits once larger salary increases were conceded. This in part paid the freight to fund tax cuts for rich GOP campaign contributors. But, rather than living large, the truth is that Milwaukee’s new teachers have an average salary of $41,000, plus ever decreasing benefits. And, if one wanted to control health-care costs (not just shift them back onto workers) the tested way of doing so would be through a public provided universal health system, which the GOP and too many Democrats oppose.

In short, the Koch/Walker Orwellian “reforms” and “tools” for Wisconsin’s schools are driving class warfare. Yet, this is not the imaginary class warfare of the left dismissed by Warren Buffett. Rather, this is the really existing class warfare that drives living standards down, increases inequities, and segregates schools while helping the income and wealth of the 1% soar. This threatens to ‘Brazilianize’ Wisconsin’s once progressive state. If you think these policies will save money, guess again: the costs will be enormous and, in fact, already are.

Jeffrey Sommers is Visiting Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. Christopher Fons is a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher and member of the Executive Board of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA).

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