Dispatch from the Wisconsin election: True school activists vote for Walker

It’s election day here in Wisconsin. We are voting to recall the governor. Or not.

I have never voted for a Republican in my whole life. Governor Walker is tied closely to the NRA, he is anti-abortion, he is generally against everything I stand for. But you know what? I hope he wins.

Because I think today’s election is a referendum on school unions, and I think the unions stink. I think they hold back school reform, they give antiquated protections to school employees that do not deserve any special treatment when most workers are not protected. And there cannot be drastic school reform until there can be drastic hiring and firing. That’s how corporate America makes significant changes—by hiring and firing. So we need to do that in schools as well.

Additionally, right now we need to prepare kids to work independently, to use entrepreneurship as a safety net, and to change jobs constantly. We can’t teach this to kids in schools when the teachers do not run their lives like this. I’m not sure how to solve the problem that schools don’t teach anything relevant to life. But I’m sure we need to fire all the people who are wedded to the idea of school testing, curriculum-based learning, and permanent employment (as a teacher or as anything else).

We need to start breaking stuff so we can see things differently. I think this election is a referendum on breaking stuff. Sometimes the best way to understand drastic change is through art. Which is why I love the yellow chair project (pictured) by Bade Stageberg Cox. Every kid can go to the same place and fit in with a group, yet every kid can still be his own person. Somehow. We are not sure how. Let’s just admit that. But we can start by looking at examples like this.

I am generally unimpressed with parent activism in schools because you are kidding yourself if you think you can fix education within such a broken system. But today is a referendum on killing the system. Walker took huge measures to kill the unions which is a big step toward killing schools as we know them. I vote yes for this. I want other states to kill their school unions. I want to see the schools completely broken down, because that’s how we’ll have real school reform.

You know what I’d love? To feel like I can have a real discussion with parents who send their kids to school. I’d like to have an honest discussion about how schools are a mess and how we are working together to destroy the current schools so that we can give all kids in the US an education they deserve.

33 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I haven’t thought about broken chairs as a metaphor but I have thought about making the link between an old car or old house in disrepair and our education institution. When do you do the repair and when do you essentially start from scratch? Some people want reform while others want a complete re-do. I’m with you, Penelope, when it comes to unions in our schools. The private sector can have its’ unions as the negotiation is between workers represented by a union and management. When it comes to negotiations in a public job, how is the taxpayer fairly represented?
    The rest of the country is looking to Wisconsin today. I read the following article ( http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/04/politics/wisconsin-recall/index.html?hpt=hp_t2 ) and agree with the following sentiment – “Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group built around many of the same principles as the tea party, has pumped more than $10 million into Wisconsin backing Walker’s policies. It’s big for the people of Wisconsin and their economic future, but I think it’s even bigger nationally as well,” said Tim Phillips, the group’s president. “I think every governor, every state legislator around the country is looking at Wisconsin, and they’re going, OK, if I got the courage to stand up and do what I think is right to get my state moving again … will someone have my back? And hopefully the answer is going to be, you bet.”
    Strip collective bargaining rights from most or all public unions. The public employees still have very good benefits … even better than many of their private sector peers. What does Lisa think the chance of this happening in NY will happen anytime soon? :)

  2. Paul
    Paul says:

    I thought I remembered you taking your kids to protest Gov. Walker when all of the reforms were being passed in the legislature. Do I remember incorrectly or did you have a change of heart?

  3. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    I agree with what you are saying. I grew up in the country and learned more from reading books at home than I did from the public school system. So I think self-directed learning is the way to go. I also don’t think teacher unions help anyone but ineffective teachers. A good teacher does not need a union to stay employed.

    But I do have to say this. Restructuring public education is complicated. And it will not happen overnight. Here in New Orleans, we basically did what you described when Katrina destroyed most of our schools and we started from scratch rebuilding public education. The teacher unions were disbanded and charters came in and took over individual schools. But most of the charters follow curriculum, use school testing to gauge effectiveness and follow a discipline policy similar to what my own three kids are subject to at their private schools. (Prior to Katrina, everyone who could scrape together the money sent their kids to private schools because the public schools were unspeakably horrible. I’m talking about kids who could not read or do math at 4 or more levels below their grade. No TP in the bathroom. Sometimes no functioning toilets! Metal detectors to keep weapons out. And more. What quality of teacher or education could you expect in those conditions?)

    So charters gave public school parents a choice on where they could send their kids for the first time EVER. Most of these parents that I am talking about are uneducated and incapable of homeschooling their kids even if they wanted to because many work multiple minimum-wage jobs just to keep food on the table. These parents honestly want a better education for their kids. But here is the catch. They want results and they want it now. They can’t wait for the government (federal, state or local) to figure out what would be a better way to teach their kids. Their kids need to be helped before it is too late and they fall victim to the streets.

    And even having school choices comes with a price that these families are concerned about. They don’t want their kids being used as guinea pigs for a new curriculum. They don’t want their kids spending hours on a bus every day commuting back & forth to “the good school”, especially when there is a neighborhood school two blocks away.

    So change is hard and it is painful, especially for people who live in poverty. While I wholeheartedly agree with you that the entire public education system needs to be overhauled drastically, we cannot destroy all current schools without a plan on how to implement a fix because there are parents and kids who are counting on us to educate them NOW. Hopefully, some like-minded people will come up with a plan soon (and some nonprofits are working on it), because I don’t think we can count on our government. Kudos to Governor Walker for having the guts to take a step in the right direction, regardless of his personal motivation.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sandy. It’s interesting to look at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. And I totally know what you mean about how awful it is to make kids wait for things to get fixed. I’ma big fan of the idea of providing a great educationto kids who depend on public school to get it. I just don’t want my kids to have to participate in the experiment of figuring out how to do it when its taking so long.


    • Pirate Jo
      Pirate Jo says:

      I already know this comment will make a bunch of people mad, but I’m saying it anyway.

      It absolutely blows my mind, why anyone who is uneducated and has to work multiple minimum wage jobs just to put food on the table would have kids in the first place. If I was in that situation, I would be getting an education so I could get out of those multiple low-wage jobs, not getting knocked up.

      Being a parent requires time and money, and if I have neither, yet have kids anyway, what am I saying? That as a taxpayer, it’s your job to buy me all the kids I want to have and pay for their educations, and by the way I’ll complain that it’s not good enough, even as I sit and expect someone else to correct the problem?

      Since when is it anyone else’s job but yours to educate the kids you chose to have? At least the homeschool people have figured it out.

      • virginia
        virginia says:

        Many people have children when they are in their teens and then they cannot afford to stay home to school their kids. Of course they want to improve the public schools and provide their children the best education they can.

        You might not make choices like they did but your experiences and education are probably completely different.

  4. GGS
    GGS says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I just came across your blog via Kathy McMahon’s, and I want to respond to your pro-Walker stance as the parent of a now-grown public school student and a former public high school teacher. Yes, the education system in America is irretrievably broken and I left it with the feeling that the whole thing should be scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up. That is not going to happen, so it’s nice that some parents can afford to stay home and educate their children and still get food on the table. That is simply not the economic condition of most families; and to be honest, many adults would be unable to educate children because they are unskilled and/or simply don’t care enough, or they have to work outside the home.

    Schools are not going to change because there is no real, compelling for them to do so. They’ve been pretty much the same since the late 1800s. I served on a school reform committee for 5 years, and ultimately the reason we could not act on any of our recommendations was because they caused conflict with the football schedule! That is just reflective of our society that values sports over intellectual growth. Charter schools are not going to fix anything. Yes, they abolish teachers’ unions, but I can assure you, they are repeating ALL the other mistakes of “the system.” Administrators will make a huge profit, then leave the wreckage behind. Are you even aware that teachers make about 1/3 of what principals and superintendents make? I have a master’s degree in my content area (English) and I began my career making $24K for a full teaching load (6 classes per day) and ended it 7 years later making $29K in a huge school district, where ongoing education was required (at my expense) to stay certified. The year I left, the principal made $160K, and the superintendent’s salary was unpublished! Presumably, it was much higher. Oh, and FYI, I never belonged to a teachers’ union, even though I had 3 to choose from. Vouchers will be introduced then their value will be reduced so that they are useless, which will just keep the whole socioeconomic scheme just the way it is: the poor will be uneducated and unable to move up in society. The rich will continue to be able to attend good schools, and there won’t be much in the middle. Anything that is “for profit” is going to be just that. Walker is a front man for corporate profiteers who want to get their hands on that public money, too. Apparently, it’s not enough to own our defense, our food supply, our media, and our banks. Cheer for Walker as a destructive force all you like, but I’m not sure you’re going to like the consequences of the world he is creating: absolutely no workers’ rights (goodbye weekends, goodbye overtime pay, goodbye paid vacations) and all your tax money redirected to religious schools and the very wealthy, for starters. Stuff is going to be broken, all right! Your roads, your postal service, your water supply, eventually your grocery stores and electricity, too–so they can be sold to the highest bidder.

    Wouldn’t it be more constructive for you to educate a couple of poor kids along with your own? Or to start a local school cooperative? While I understand the emotional need to knock it all down and start over, I urge you to take a cool, rational look at what is really going on here. The whole Walker game seems based on the (wrong) idea that teachers are getting something no one else is getting, and they’re getting it for free! If teaching is such an awesome deal, why do 3 out of 5 new teachers leave after their first year? The problem is that schools are expected to raise kids now, not just to educate them. Parents have a responsibility here, too, to reinforce good habits and make sure kids have the resources, nutrition, and support for getting an education, but as a teacher, I was expected to be a nurse, nanny, psychologist, and parent. Trying to hold kids accountable always resulted in howling parents and administrators, who saw our job as being more keeping kids “happy” and giving them good grades (to keep up their “self-esteem”), even when no work was being done by the student at all. Most of the high school kids I taught had never read a single book, nor did they have books at home.

    As the citizen of an adjacent state, I’ll be watching Wisconsin with great interest, as it seems like you are on the edge of a very dangerous experiment that the rest of us will learn a lot from. Best of luck up there.


  5. Katy
    Katy says:

    This is such a big hairy complicated deal. I can see it from many angles..as both a product of public education AND homeschooling.
    The only thing I will add is that the idea that poor folks need the government to provide a public education so they don’t “fall prey to the streets” — that is a symptom of children not having anything else to do.
    We need to relax child labor laws and allow children as young as 10 to do light, part time work. We also need apprenticeships and alternative vocational training.
    My kids desperately want to start their own business, but I know that’s impossible because none of them are 16 yet and I don’t want to get in trouble with child labor laws.

    Anyway. I hope Walker wins just because I’m sick of property taxes skyrocketing for schools, while the superintendent pockets 200k per year. The whole system is total sh*t.

  6. nicole diaz nelson
    nicole diaz nelson says:

    Hi, I’ve never posted before but I love to read this blog. Love how it challenges me and gives me a more corporate, business-oriented perspective, which I do not have much experience in working at a research institution. But if we are going to extend the comparisons between the school system and the corporate system (which is in itself problematic), what does firing the lowest workers on the totem pole do for a corporate atmosphere? I mean, I know it happens, but doesn’t real change happen when you shake up the higher levels in a business? While firing the lowest is appropriate when they’ve made specific mistakes, punishing the lowest (via firings or deprivations of collectivist rights) for systemic failures feels like simple scapegoating to me. I truly believe that the greatest laziness and corruption happens at the administrative levels in the school systems. Teachers are the front line, often underpaid and scapegoated already (the unions are often their only means of self-protection) while principals, admins and superintendents reinforce endless bureacracy, waste and shortsighted planning, while also never getting fired, just shuffled around. If managers and CEO’s were behaving like that, would you fire the data analysts and assistants?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      When business is going badly, the board gives the CEO the benefit of the doubt, and tells the CEO to fix it. The CEO fires tons of low-level people because, presumably, the CEO handpicked the people reporting to him (it’s almost always a him, isn’t it?) and so would not fire them. So when business goes badly, first the front-line lower-level people get fired. And if that doesn’t work, then the board goes after the CEO.

      So, for now, Walker seems to be doing what corporate America does.


  7. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I hope Walker wins too. But I am not a Democrat. I don’t understand how homeschoolers esp unschoolers (which I am) can be Democrats. The Dems have become the voice of schools, unions, big government and the entitlement mind set that pervade our culture. I am a pro life Libertarian (I , as a mom, know full well that when pregnant I house, temporarily, a person who deserves all the freedom and respect that I enjoy). But I still think ‘standing for abortion’ isn’t a good enough reason for homeschoolers to be Democrats. So, someone supports the NRA…you are a homeschooler, you are aware that it’s a 2nd amendment right to bear arms…helps keep us from ever being at the mercy of our government, a government which really is far more invested in public schooling than homeschooling. Many unions throw a lot of their money (which is forcibly taken from their various employees) toward Dem candidates. Look at how many opted out of paying dues or joining unions when given the choice in Wisconsin…half! Could you imagine if they put all their political money into the coffers of Republicans? The news media would FREAK OUT! But somehow it’s ok for them to line the pockets of Democrats. NOT COOL!! To essentially extort funds from people and have a portion of those funds go to to candidates which, I imagine, at least half don’t want to support is completely unAmerican! How can homeschoolers support that? I find it interesting that some would never vote for a Republican because of abortion or gun rights.There are pro choice Repubs (as their are pro life Dems) but I could never vote for a Democrat because they are pro public school, against vouchers, for more school at earlier ages, not less and generally believe that government knows best what to do for my kids. Most of the Repubs and ALL of the Libertarians are pro homeschooling, pro small business and entrepreneurship, pro family. and less government intrusion into all of our lives. In closing, before anyone comes screaming at me because I am pro-life, let me just say, as a Libertarian, I believe abortion is not a federal issue but a states rights issue and should go back to each state to vote on. I believe in State sovereignty, not big central federal government. Just my .02…feel free to ignore it. That what makes this country great.

  8. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’m back. Here is why I can’t politically support liberals. This was taken from The New Republic, a liberal political magazine. The arrogance and elitism in this piece is truly nauseating. I wasn’t a Santorum supporter, when he was running (and I’m Catholic) but I loved that he was a homeschooling dad. You think the writer of this piece has ever screwed up facts or has some gaps in his education? Of course! But he thinks we shouldn’t be allowed to home school because we are not certified. Secular folks want to point to religious folks to make a mockery out ofhome schooling. However, as one who zealously defends the rights of all American’s to believe what that choose (no matter whether they agree with me or not) the writer of this article clearly thinks otherwise. I don’t want my country to fall into the hands of people who think like this man. He would happily remove my freedom to homeschool.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      I don’t think he’s an elitist, I think he is the true definition of “old school”. All of his accomplishments come from academia, Harvard, Bronx Science, etc. he’s been drinking his own kool aid and that of his pals for so long and since before many of us were born. He simply can’t see that there are other ways of doing things than his way. I would define that as all-too-common, rather than elite. Isn’t it so that change is most resisted by establishments? and oh man is he old school establishment…just like schools. “oh the times they are a changin….”

      I love that you are a catholic, gun defending unschooler. My very large catholic family members think I unschool BECAUSE I am too liberal ;-)

  9. SamR
    SamR says:

    I think Walker’s winning in a walk, but this discussion interests me.

    “they give antiquated protections to school employees that do not deserve any special treatment when most workers are not protected. And there cannot be drastic school reform until there can be drastic hiring and firing. That’s how corporate America makes significant changes—by hiring and firing.”

    1. So the solution to most workers not getting protections is to make sure none of them do? Unfairness for all, except for our elites!
    2. Why should corporate America be a model for schools? If the schools were to follow the model of corporate America, they were would be a huge layer of ridiculously compensated executives (who remain on the job despite repeated failures and in the case of MF Global outright theft) and our kids would be taught by temps in India. Any criticism of these elites would be slammed as an attack on job creators.

    The entire post reminds me of the “Underpants Gnomes” reasoning on that South Park episode:

    1. Destroy the unions to destroy the schools
    2. ????
    3. Awesome schools!

    Couple final questions, based on this:


    1. Did the massive decline of union membership from 1955-2010 help or hurt the average American?
    2. Is there a reason to think that the outcome with schools will be vastly different than what happened in previous instances where union membership was gutted?

    • MichaelG
      MichaelG says:

      Look, these government workers, whether they are teachers, administrators or general paper pushers, are not coal miners. They don’t live in company towns where there is no other work. If they don’t like their jobs, they can quit.

      If schools are lousy, parents should move their kids, punishing failure in a school the same way they would punish a bad business — by taking their business elsewhere.

      I have worked for big companies, and the layers of bloated management are a thing of the past in most tech companies. They just can’t afford that kind of waste. And no business, not even the brain-dead Dilbert companies you are thinking of, could afford to perform as poorly as most school systems.

      We aren’t even graduating 25% of the students — 50% in some states like Nevada. Most of the rest are leaving with a useless education. Many of them hate education so much by the time they graduate that they never read a non-fiction book again for the rest of their lives.

      We could hardly do worse.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        According to USNews_education the graduation rates from highschool are on average 75% with a large state by state variation, Nevada was given as 56% (which certainly is pretty poor). Where did you read the 25%?

        • MichaelG
          MichaelG says:

          I said “aren’t even graduating 25%”, which is the same as graduating 75%. Same with Nevada. Graduating 56% is not graduating 44% (I rounded up from memory.)

          • RachH
            RachH says:

            No, your wording does not work here. For instance, if I say “I didn’t even have 25% of the pizza,” you’d better believe my husband would know I am upset with him for hogging most of the food and I am still hungry. It doesn’t mean “I didn’t even have 25% of the pizza, because I had 75% of it instead!”

      • SamR
        SamR says:

        I notice you chose not to address any of the data I pointed out or questions based on that data that I asked. Think that speaks for itself.

        “Most of the rest are leaving with a useless education.” Says who? Based on what data? I’d note that while “blogging based on the idea that those who make 250k are poor while those who make 35k are rich” might be a growth industry, there’s a limit to the number of jobs in that area.

        • MichaelG
          MichaelG says:

          Kids with just a high school education try to get jobs, and find they can’t compete with Chinese girls fresh off a farm working in electronics factories, or illegal immigrants doing work here, or with Germans doing high-end manufacturing.

          These kids want a job, and thought their education was going to get them one. It didn’t, so that pretty much means it was useless to them. They didn’t go to school for the intellectual enrichment.

          As for unions, some people seem to think that if only they put their foot down and insisted on $20/hr salaries, they could get those jobs, even when Chinese will do the exact same work for $3/hr. It’s not going to happen.

          The companies will move the factory to get away from expensive union labor, or just go out of business. That’s because they can’t force consumers to pay more than they would for the cheap import.

          If you won’t improve the quality of your education and won’t drop the price of your labor, you aren’t going to get a job. There are a billion poor people with the same skills as the average American high school graduate (i.e. minimal skills) willing to do those jobs.

          That’s why we’re even talking about home schooling or restructuring the educational system. If existing schools were doing the job, this debate wouldn’t be happening.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            The german manufacturing does require a lot of high end schooling, and university and high-end apprenticeships. Since homeschooling is not legal in Germany this is achieved with public schools, admittedly the average public school is better than in the US. And the high-end manufacturing is done in a country where labor costs are very high, with much less constant reshuffling of the workforce. The hire-and-fire cycle is a lot longer, and unions are relatively strong, sometime this is good, sometimes not. So, the fast paced hire-fire cycle is not the only way to go, especially if you want to have a highly educated STEM workforce. However, it is the comparison between the “boutique steel (for example)” made in Germany compared to the low wage chinese manufacturing for the high volume steel. You need both and should pick the corner of the market which works with your workforce.

    • Richard
      Richard says:

      You seem to be suggesting that one must be uniformly Pro-union or Anti-union, that there is no middle ground. Like most institutions in our society, unions are complex, and can be a force for both good and bad.

      “1. So the solution to most workers not getting protections is to make sure none of them do? Unfairness for all, except for our elites!”

      Can you be more clear about which behavior you think is unfair? For example, if you think most teachers should have good health insurance, I would totally agree. But if you think they should be basically impossible to fire I would strongly disagree.

      “1. Did the massive decline of union membership from 1955-2010 help or hurt the average American?
      2. Is there a reason to think that the outcome with schools will be vastly different than what happened in previous instances where union membership was gutted?”

      I think we should evaluate schools based on how effective they are at education, not based on how nice of a job they are for educators. (I do think teachers should be well compensated in order to attracted better teachers, but not as an end in itself.)

  10. David Santy
    David Santy says:

    I hope Walker doesn’t win, because I’d rather have legislation written BY the people of Wisconsin, FOR the people of Wisconsin.

    Walker stands for legislation written by out of state billionaire funded conservative think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council. He stands for the erosion of women’s rights, worker’s rights, and the rights of people of the LGBT community.

    I’ve had enough of divisive far-right wing politics, and that’s why I don’t support Scott Walker.

  11. liam
    liam says:

    I think it’s fascinating that the entire economy basically collapsed “inside job” style, we’re at war with I’m not sure how many countries anymore (syria? yes or no?) our food supply is a mess, the supreme court is letting corporations decide elections, and omg.. my mind is blank.

    And yet – somehow — in the last couple of years the public school teacher has become public enemy number one. That is some crafty karl rove ninja action right there.

  12. Kim
    Kim says:

    This, right here:

    “You know what I’d love? To feel like I can have a real discussion with parents who send their kids to school. I’d like to have an honest discussion about how schools are a mess and how we are working together to destroy the current schools so that we can give all kids in the US an education they deserve.”

    This makes no sense at all. It would be insulting if it weren’t so confusing. I am a parent who sends my 8-year-old to (public!) school. It’s definitely not perfect, but nothing is and so far I’m more pleased than not. Why would I want to have an “honest” discussion with anyone about how schools are “a mess” that should be “destroy[ed]”? There is no shortage of things to improve/fix in public education, but what you’re suggesting is not a discussion — it’s a lecture.

  13. redrock
    redrock says:

    there is a lot of hatred here – destruction, drastic hire and fire, kill the schools, evil teachers, unions and THE system (whatever it is), laziness and corruption either of administrators or teachers, fire all the people who disagree, elitist… I doubt this is going to make for better education.

  14. Ron
    Ron says:

    So do you really think any politician is going to fix the schools? And do you really think that if such a politician exists, Governor Walker is that politician?

    You are still looking for top-down solutions. Somehow, the powerful entrenched elite are going to become suddenly enlightened and work for the powerless.

    Homeschool is a bottom-up solution, not a top-down one. No real innovation is ever going to come from the top, or the politicians. People just need to do it themselves, because the politicians will not suddenly start becoming radical innovative reformers.

  15. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I agree. My 2-year stint in the hiring and firing department of an elementary school district confirmed the idea that unions protect weak and overly self-interested teachers at the expense of the students. Tax money not well spent.

  16. Meg
    Meg says:

    I don’t think that schools can run the way entrepreneurship runs. The reason I don’t think so is different from why you might not think so. I don’t think so, because entrepreneurship runs, in our current culture, on the concept of everyone and everything becoming a commodity.

    Teachers can’t become commodities. If they do, the greats, the ones we all remember, will be fired when it becomes cheaper to replace them with entry-level workers.

    That is why we need unions. So that people can actually dare to invest in their careers. Career-hopping takes a lot of time and energy. If a person is investing all their time and energy into the mastery of their craft (as many teachers I have known and loved, did), they can’t simultaneously be jockeying for another position.

    I homeschool my kids. But I would hate to see teaching in schools become day-labor work, sold to the lowest bidder, such that the passionate ones are driven out by a system that treats workers as disposable, and seeks actively to throw out what can be replaced with something cheaper.

    Have you read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair? Talking to people still alive today, who know in personal terms, why unionization was one of America’s greatest inventions, is an education in itself, and a challenge to all who sit in judgment of unions as something to be undone for the good of corporate success.

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