At Monday's public hearing in Milwaukee on Governor Walker's budget, Wisconsin Republicans once again resorted to anti-participatory tactics to avoid criticism of their agenda. Despite these efforts, strong critiques were squeezed-in by longtime Milwaukee school choice advocate Howard Fuller, calling GOP efforts to lift income limits on school vouchers an "outrageous" program "that subsidizes rich people."
Republicans Regulate Milwaukee Hearing
Milwaukee's hearing at State Fair Park was the third of four statewide sessions on Walker's proposed budget by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee, and controversy arose well before the hearing began. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, two of Milwaukee's congresswomen, Rep. Tamara Grigsby and Sen. Lena Taylor, were concerned that many working people would be excluded because the hearing was scheduled to end at 6pm. The two arranged to hold informal sessions until 9pm to allow people to voice their opinion, then notified Joint Finance co-chairs Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R- River Falls) about their plans.
Sen. Darling reportedly approved the Grigsby-Taylor informal hearing and Rep. Vos "said he would think about it." However, Taylor soon received notice from State Fair Park that Vos had reserved the facility until midnight, meaning the Dems' hearing could not take place, and Milwaukee's working population could not have their voices heard.
According to Taylor, "This isn't open government. This is not democracy. This is shameful."
Beer City Blockage the Latest in a Series
Vos and Darling were unabashed about their intention to suppress opposition, with Darling telling the Journal-Sentinel "we had to take precautions so that what happened at the Capitol wouldn't happen at State Fair Park."
"The hearings are going to be done when we say they're done," Vos said.
This is only the latest in a series of Wisconsin GOP efforts to limit scrutiny and stifle dissent. On February 11, Governor Walker sought to limit deliberation on his budget repair bill by introducing it on a Friday and ordering a vote on a Tuesday (Senate Democrats thwarted these plans by leaving the state). The Walker Administration violated the constitutionally-guaranteed right of public access to the state capitol in late February, and a judge ordered it re-opened; the administration violated that order in March and a hearing on that violation is pending. On March 11, Republicans forced the union-busting budget repair bill through the Senate with minimal notice, breaking state Open Meetings laws and possibly violating the constitution's public access guarantees.
Hearing Limits Input from Milwaukee's Particularly-Affected Populations of Color
This latest step towards suppression is especially egregious considering Milwaukee is not only the state's largest city, but has the most people of color, a population that will be particularly affected by Walker's budget and budget repair bill. The plans eliminate funding for a new program to track and remedy racial profiling (the first step towards confronting Wisconsin's atrocious record of racial disparities in incarceration); will limit eligibility for medical assistance; kicks legal immigrants off food assistance; and eliminates funding for a program that provided civil legal services to low income residents. Walker is also expected to cut $300 million from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), severely limiting education quality for the district teaching the greatest number of students (and students of color) in the state.
With Republican legislators keeping the Milwaukee hearing short, only speakers who signed up before 12:30pm had their voices heard. Hundreds of people were denied the ability to speak, and as the hearing ended at 6:30pm, there were shouts of "let us speak" and the now-familiar "shame" directed at those lawmakers.
Howard Fuller Heard on Education
While many Milwaukee residents were not heard on Monday, at least one prominent voice spoke strongly against Walker's plans for Milwaukee schools.
In addition to cutting $300 million from Milwaukee's public schools (and eliminating teacher's unions), Walker's budget reinforces existing inequalities by expanding the "school choice" program, which allows students to opt-out of public schools and use a taxpayer-funded voucher for private school tuition. The voucher program has been criticized not only because it directs money away from public schools, but because private schools can pick-and-choose their students, often selecting those who come from an advantaged background and leaving the rest to suffer in under-funded public schools.
Milwaukee became the country's first publicly-funded school voucher program in 1990, and it grew under the tenure of MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller. He currently directs an institute at Marquette University that authorizes schools trying to get into Milwaukee's choice program. Howard has collaborated with Republican lawmakers in the past, many of whom support so-called "school choice" out of belief in free market principles of competition and privatization. While many on the left fear defunding public education, some urban advocates like Fuller have supported vouchers to give promising low-income students a better chance at long-term success by providing education options that would not otherwise be available.
But Fuller, who is now regarded as the nation's most influential African-American spokesman for "school choice," strongly criticized Walker's plans to remove income eligibility caps for the private school voucher program. "Please don't make it true that you were using the poor just to eventually make this available to the rich," Fuller said. "If [lifting income eligibility] is done, I will become an opponent of this."
"I never got into this to give someone like me $6,500 to send their kid to Marquette High School (tuition $15,000 per year)... This is where I get off the train, I'm not going to go anywhere in America and fight for a program that subsidizes rich people."