In Search of Statesmanship

Perhaps the greatest loss in the current fire & brimstone version of American politics is the virtually complete absence of genuine statesmanship.  The dictionary definition of “statesman,” is:

a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.

Note that there is no reference to political party or partisanship in this definition because a true statesman has the wisdom and skills to lead and not just the crass skill to win elections.

While there has been a long term American trend minimizing the value of statesmanship, the trend worsened after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United in which the majority held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited.  This decision unleashed a torrent of campaign spending such as the nation has never seen before in which corporate interests spend as they please to buy the politicians that serve their interests.  Such an atmosphere makes principled statesmanship extremely challenging.

Fortunately, there are a few statesmen left, although at the federal level, one statesman who stands out has wisely chosen to stay out of electoral politics, perhaps to preserve his ability to be a statesman. Retired Gen. Colin Powell served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and yet due to his statesmanship, despite being considered as a possible Vice-Presidential running mate for Presidential candidate John McCain, shortly before the 2008 election, he endorsed Barack Obama during a Meet the Press interview, citing “his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities,” in addition to his “style and substance.” He additionally referred to Obama as a “transformational figure“.  Crossing party lines is a true marker of statesmanship.

At the local level, Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz, a long time Republican, has also shown that he is a statesman.  He has been in the Wisconsin legislature since 1982, and  his overall voting record is generally that of a conservative Republican, earning him high marks from Right to Life groups, the NRA and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.  But ever since 2011, when he voted against his party’s budget proposal to strip union collective bargaining rights, as well as against a bill that would fast track mining in Wisconsin, he has earned the ire of many in his party and may well face a challenging primary if he chooses to run for re-election.  I worked closely with him in helping to kill and ALEC sponsored special needs voucher bill in 2012.

Wisconsin is a better place because of statesmen like Dale Schultz, and America is a better country because of statesmen like Colin Powell.  The national challenge is to make our political environment more conducive for more statesmen to practice their skillful craft.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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The Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party is On

Perhaps not since Teddy Roosevelt split from the Republican Party to create the Progressive Party in 1912, has the Republican Party faced the kind of fight in which it is now engaged for its very soul.  Although the Tea Party has not actually created a separate political party and run outside the Republican party to challenge Republicans, the fact that it has frequently run candidates against established Republican moderate incumbents demonstrates its intent to take over the Republican Party.

But the real question for the Republican Party is not whether candidates who affiliate themselves with the Tea Party end up controlling the party.  The much more important issue is whether the ALEC driven agenda becomes the driving force of the party, regardless of the status of the Tea Party.

At the federal level, we have recently seen Bob Dole’s televised regrets that the Republican Party,

“can’t get together on a budget or legislation”

and that his party should hang a

“closed for repairs”

sign on its doors until it comes up with a few new ideas.

At the state level, it may not be a lack of ideas that is exacerbating the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.  Rather, it is ALEC sponsored ideas such as private school voucher expansion that has pushed this battle to the forefront.

Wisconsin is demonstrating this perfect storm in the battle over its budget, where Gov. Walker chose to insert ALEC inspired private school voucher expansion into the budget.  While one would normally expect this to easily pass due to Republican control of both the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate, it is not playing out that way. Although voucher expansion would easily pass the Wisconsin Assembly, a revolt by moderate non-Tea Party Republican Senators is blocking the massive expansion sought by Gov. Walker.

This story is playing out all over the country and while many may make predictions about its outcome, just as Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party likely resulted in electing Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, as President, the question on the other side of the aisle today is whether Democrats can seize the opportunity which the internal Republican battle presents.  President Obama likes to claim that he has already done so, but given that he still faces a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and Republicans hold 30 of the states’ governorships, the Democrats have clearly failed to set forth a sufficiently clear and attractive vision to take advantage of the opportunity which the Republicans have presented to them.

The Chinese curse may say it best:

May you live in interesting times.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Why Special Needs Vouchers are Still a Bad Idea

Although Democrats in Wisconsin celebrated the victories of President Obama and Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, Republicans rejoiced over recapturing the State Senate.  Republican control over the full legislature means many things, but as Gov. Walker recently signaled in his speech at the Reagan Library in California, among his top priorities is to expand Wisconsin’s voucher programs, including creation of a Special Needs Voucher program. During the last legislative session, Tea Party member Rep. Michelle Litjens sponsored AB 110, which would have created Special Needs Vouchers in Wisconsin.  Although she retired after just one term, the ascendency of Rep. Robin Vos to the speakership assures that his party will reintroduce some form of that legislation, which did pass the Assembly, but failed to pass the Wisconsin Senate, as there was sufficient moderate Republican opposition to allow Sen. Luther Olsen to decline to call a vote in the Senate Education Committee. As a key leader in Wisconsin’s special education movement, I was there every step of the way to raise awareness and help defeat AB 110 last session.  This included numerous meetings with Rep. Vos, Sen. Olsen, and American  Federation for Children (a/k/a school privatization through vouchers is our mission) lobbyists former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Republican spokesperson Brian Pleva. Among the reasons, a coalition of disability groups defeated AB 110 last session was that not a single disability group supported the measure.  Although the proponents of the bill traded on some parents’ legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education programs, these parents, whose children already attended private schools and therefore would receive no benefit from these vouchers, were not persuasive enough to get this bill through the Senate. Why are these vouchers such a bad idea, if parents have legitimate frustrations with their children’s special education in public school?

  • No voucher bills force private schools to accept children with disabilities.  In fact, Wisconsin’s current voucher programs have a long track record of failing to serve all but a few children with disabilities, which is currently being investigated by the US Dept. of Justice.
  • AB 110 did not even require that voucher schools provide children with disabilities any special education or related services such as physical therapy or assistive technology.  Even the somewhat improved Senate version, SB 486, sponsored by Sen. Vukmir, though it required implementation of the child’s IEP, failed to require private schools to employ any special educators or therapists.
  • Parents who choose a special needs voucher give up all the rights they have under state and federal special education law, the most powerful education law in the nation.  Thus, if things go wrong in the voucher school, a parent’s only recourse is to return their child to the public school they were unhappy with initially.
  • The voucher program takes money out of public schools, hurting the remaining children with disabilities, and worse yet, does not provide sufficient funding to educate children with disabilities in private school.
  • AB 110 had no income cap, or tuition cap.  This means that millionaires could have their children educated in private schools at state expense, and low income families could not use the vouchers because tuition would likely be higher than the amount of the voucher.
  • These vouchers will likely result in private schools creaming the least disabled students who cost the last to educate, thereby segregating the most disabled students in public schools, who have been stripped of funding by this program, to properly educate them.
  • These programs guarantee that once a child takes one of these vouchers, that child can keep it until they graduate or turn 21.  This means that regardless of whether the child needs special education anymore, unlike the public school requirement which calls for reevaluation of that status every 3 years and generally removes 1/3 of such students from special education upon reevaluation, once in private school, these children will maintain disability status at public expense for the rest of their educational career.

Hopefully, disability groups will coalesce once again to block passage of a special needs voucher program in Wisconsin.  To do, however, they will need to work closely with moderate Senate Republicans, including Senators Olsen, Schultz and Cowles.  The American Federation for Children will come bearing gifts for Wisconsin legislators who vote to create this program, so the battle will be fierce.