Earlier this week the Christmas Tree that has stood in the Capitol rotunda since the beginning of December was taken down limb by limb with a chainsaw, as the thousands of ornaments made by the hands of Wisconsin school children so proudly displayed by the Governor and his wife Tonette last month were unceremoniously thrown in the garbage by inmates of Oakhill Correctional Institution. Later in the day, after all traces of the tree had been removed, the Solidarity Sing A-long flooded back into the rotunda singing, “When We Make Peace” to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
As the massively successful signature gathering period for the recall of Scott Walker enters its final week and more arrests are made in the John Doe investigation surrounding Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor, hope finally begins to dawn in the hearts and minds of democracy-loving citizens of Wisconsin.
Evidently, Republican legislators have not perceived this shift in political winds. They continue to introduce power-grabbing legislation written for special interests, and much of it is focused on disempowering democratic institutions in Milwaukee.
On Thursday, the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities met to consider AB 353, a bill that would change the composition of the sixteen technical college district boards. Currently, each board is composed of two employers, two employees, one school district administrator, one elected state or local official, and three additional members. The employer and employee members must represent the various businesses and industries in the district.
AB 353 eliminates the employee members and two of the at large members, and increases the employer or “business person” members to six.
Introducing the bill to the committee, Rep. Mark Honadel said, “The meat of this bill is to improve the linkage and responsiveness between our technical colleges and our business communities. I believe there must be a greater focus on manufacturing, and a greater correlation between the education programs and the needs of the local businesses.”
Sen. Glenn Grothman added that changing the composition of the boards would address three problems: High compensation for tech college employees and the resulting high tax levies, jobs available but no skilled applicants, and employers’ sense that graduates aren’t ready to work after graduation.
“The point is, we want to have a majority on the board with a business background,” said Grothman. Admitting that the proposal is not broadly accepted by his Republican colleagues he added, “For this bill to pass the senate, it is going to have to focus primarily on MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College). I would like to have the bill deal with the entire state, but I don’t think that politically that’s going to be realistic at this time.”
AB 353 is one of many other Republican bills and administrative decisions designed to erode the democratic structures supporting public education in Wisconsin. It is a small piece of the overall strategy to shift control of public resources away from democratically elected bodies and into the purview of private companies that stand to reap commercial gains as the result of that control.
In this case, the idea is to turn technical colleges into publicly funded, privately governed training schools for the specific companies who comprise the boards. Your basic, “socialize the costs, privatize the benefits” approach.
The University of Wisconsin is already being used as publicly funded research and development laboratory for energy, biotech and engineering companies through “private-public partnership” agreements and research institutes. Former UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin lost her job last year due to her support of Scott Walker’s plan to more deeply entrench these kinds of “partnerships.”
The political career of Committee Chair Steve Nass is distinguished by nothing greater than his deep animosity toward higher education in Wisconsin. Throughout the hearing he echoed Grothman’s ideological statements about overpaid public employees and high property taxes, issues that aren’t directly addressed by this change in statute.
Attempting to bring the discussion back to the actual bill, Rep. Louis Molepske asked Honadel and Grothman, “You’re bringing up anecdotes and what you believe to be the facts. But where’s the data that shows that boards are deficient in their actions based on their professions coming to the boards?”
Dodging the question, Honadel replied, “My whole life is not an anecdote. We’re here today because guys like us, people who hire the people coming out of the tech colleges, we want them to be ready to go for whatever the industry trend is at that time.”
That “guys like us” attitude of entitlement was amplified and twisted in an especially crass way by Katy Venskus, convicted felon and lobbyist for the Metropolitain Milwaukee Association of Commerce who testified at length in support of the bill: "You have to remember that the consumer of the end product of the technical college system is the employer. The product does not suit the needs that they currently have."
In a similarly heartless fashion, she went on to assert, "If we funnel an additional chunk of kids into a tech college system that is not aligned with the needs of the employers we are doing a disservice."
Probing Venskus’s assertion that MMAC members found it too difficult to get elected to the MATC board through the usual, democratic way and then serving their terms once they did manage to get elected, Rep. Molepske asked, "What exactly was too arduous about serving on the board?"
Vanskus replied, "Some of those things I said were somewhat rhetorical so I'm willing to let them go." A variation on Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl’s infamous “not intended to be a factual statement” remark after knowingly spreading lies about Planned Parenthood during floor debate.
Dr. Tom Eckert, president of Blackhawk Technical College, mounted an impassioned defense of his college and the board that governs it. “We are clearly already responsive to business and industry in many, many ways, and I take offense at your suggestion that we're not already doing that.”
Sharpening this point, Eckert added, “We hold business education summits and get down to the details of skill sets required, and I frequently have one to one meetings with company executives to talk about, are we meeting your workforce needs and how can we serve you better. Through all of this I’ve gotten nothing but full support of the board, impressing on me to continue to keep that connection strong.”
The larger question of democratic representation was raised by Ed Kuharski, an unemployed architect. Referring to the long trajectory of privatization in Wisconsin, Kuharski observed, "Tommy Thompson started to politicize our good citizen boards, and they have not prospered. Jim Doyle didn't have the courage to change it back."
He added, “I haven't heard about making sure that workers and citizens are well represented on these boards. Guess what, we're the customers.”
Several sitting technical college board members also testified against the bill, but none more pointedly than John Lukas of Manitowoc, the employer member and current chair of Lakeshore Technical College board. Lukas is vice president of LDI industries, a family business that manufactures hydraulic components.
Turning the technical-colleges-exist-to-serve-business narrative around, Lukas said, “The reason you’re there is for the best interest of the college.” Citing experiences where other business owners have expressed interest in developing apprentice programs with the college but never followed up, Lukas said, “I don’t want to have someone on our board who isn’t going to be showing up at our board meetings and isn’t going to be participating in our college activities and isn’t bringing something to the table.”
Giving her assessment of the hearing, Rep. Terese Berceau said, “I’m hearing that the premise of the bill is ill-founded. We have regional needs that are different. We need more information before we decide that this one size fits all solution is going to result in positive change.”
If Nass, Grothman and Honadel want to get this bill passed into law, they’d better get it done soon while they still have a governor in office who will sign it.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.