On Education, Big Money, and Wishywashiness:
One on One with Mary Burke
One on One with Mary Burke
Heather DuBois Bourenane, Monologues of Dissent
10 November 2013
While Governor Walker continues to tour the nation to promote himself and his new book, Wisconsin is beginning the long rough road to another election. Democrats, progressives, independents, and moderates ready for change are eager to get to know who's running against Walker - where they stand, how they'll be different, how they can prove that they won't deliver more of the same partisan divisiveness that has paralyzed progress in this state.
|Mary Burke |
And Wisconsin is waiting - impatiently and critically - to find out where these two women (and any other potential contenders) stand, and perhaps just as importantly, if we can trust them.
Our faith in democracy itself has been shaken -by three years of the anti-democratic pandering to special interests and cronies that has been the true hallmark of the Walker administration, and by doubt over the integrity of the election process, by the level of corruption exposed and under investigation in Walker's administration, by the contempt shown everyday citizens at public hearings and at the Capitol in general, and by the way we've been completely shut out of the conversation by Scott Walker, who has built his shameful reputation on a legacy of exclusion. Walker never appears at legitimately public events; he never entertains questions from an audience; his staff does not respond to inquiries made in writing or by phone. The only way to talk to him is by pretending to be a billionaire.
So I jumped at the very unexpected invitation to talk to Mary Burke, one-on-one and on the record, about the many questions that have been on my mind as I've closely followed the launch of her campaign and the many interviews she's done to date, none of which have been particularly revealing of the details of her plans or positions.
We spoke by phone for just over half an hour on Saturday, which was enough time to get through a long list of pressing questions I had about answers and half-answers she'd delivered in previous interviews, and I think you'll see from the transcript below that while she's pretty good at talking about an issue without saying much about what she'll do about it (a requisite for winning campaigns, it seems), I nonetheless learned a number of things about her positions that I hadn't yet heard. Apologies for monopolizing the start of the conversation, but since this was the first time we spoke, I wanted to try to make it conversational, and take the little time we had to emphasize the concerns that many of us have about the issues in this critical race. There are many more things I am still dying to know that we didn't get to (like her school board record and the details of her offer - and withdrawal - of support for Madison Prep, on charter schools in general, and public/private partnerships, and what she plans to do in regard to the UW system, and what she thinks about the myth of the "skills gap" and so much more), but we didn't get to everything. Hopefully I'll be able to follow up in person one of these days.
Until then, if I had to sum up Mary Burke's attitude in one word it would be: pragmatic.
She seems to be critically aware that whatever her own agenda might be, with little chance of flipping the Republican majority in the legislature, any progress made in her first session will likely be enacted by cooperating and working with a potentially (very) hostile legislature. When I asked her, for instance, what she'd do if the legislature presented her with a bill to repeal vouchers, her response was both evasive and practical: it's not gonna happen, so "what I would certainly focus on is making sure that the accountability is there now."
She also seems to be very carefully crafting an identity for herself as the candidate who will listen, who cares not just about the economy and jobs, but about local solutions to local issues - a theme that came up in her answers to my questions about schools and about the Penokee mine.
What was less clear, however, was exactly where she really stands on education. On the one hand, she gave teacher-rooted answers that spoke to a desire to avoid top-down solutions, let teachers teach, and encourage collaborations. She said tying merit pay to test scores has not been proven to have worked, but that she wouldn't be opposed to it if teachers supported it and found it useful. She said she supported high standards but opposed a culture of testing for testing's sake and supported pragmatic, diagnostic testing in our schools. She shared my skepticism of Wisconsin's school report cards and called them out for their inability to accurately reflect what kids are learning int he classroom. And yet, on the other hand...her language drips of the rhetoric of the Arne Duncan/Michelle Rhee/pro-charter-proliferation, anti-teacher, pro-voucher "reformers." I cringed when she actually said "poverty is no excuse" for not improving instructional practices. Of course we can improve instructional practices and promote student learning in impoverished communities. But not taking into account the full measure of the undeniable impacts of poverty on teaching and learning is a recipe for failure, a point I tried hard to stress in my line of questioning.
Mary Burke is very clearly serious about prioritizing best education practices and policies in Wisconsin, but she seems to walk that fine line between arguing that our schools are excellent (which they are!) and buying into the myth that they are broken and need saving. If I could ask one follow-up question that I didn't get to, it would be this: Will you please, please, read Diane Ravitch's new book, Reign of Error, and join us in the fight to save our schools? We can't walk the walk of truly defending public education when we are talking the talk of those who are doing the most damage to our schools. It's
Public School Shakedown initiative of The Progressive Magazine. It was reassuring to me that this is the venue Mary Burke chose, for her first big exclusive post-announcement interview with editor Ruth Conniff, and I hope to see her fully engaged and in dialogue with those of us who've prioritized honest discussion of the future of public education as her campaign progresses.
Because above all, Mary Burke seems genuinely, resolutely, pragmatic. She gives the impression that she cares deeply and takes very seriously the need to better serve the people who are hit hardest by the attacks of the current administration: teachers, students, public workers and those without jobs at all, and people who are seeing the impacts of being shut out of a legislative process that ignores local input. She looks for research that supports ideas that work, and wants to implement them. She trusts ideas that work, but only if the bottom line meets her criteria for success.
Such a pragmatic approach - which seems careful and clinical after the feckless megalomania of the current Governor - may not satisfy the left in its desire to quickly and forcefully undo the damage caused by the Walker administration. But pragmatism is, in itself, a refreshingly candid change of pace from the reckless cut-and-spend policies of Scott Walker, who has violated virtually every aspect of the social contract, while still putting forth the largest budget in Wisconsin history and creating a massive kick-the-can deficit that we cannot afford. Pragmatic may not sum up the qualities I was personally looking for in a candidate (my dream candidate is someone with the contagious passion and grassroots grit of Lori Compas and the political and intellectual savvy of Elizabeth Warren), but it's a whole world away from the alternative, which is tearing this state apart.
Sure beats divisive.
Sure beats dictatorial.
Sure beats reckless borrowing and massive cuts.
Sure beats Walker.
The MoD interview with Mary Burke
9 November 2013 (by telephone, Sun Prairie, WI)
MoD/Heather DuBois Bourenane: Thank you so much for the call. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to talk to you.
Mary Burke: Well, I appreciate the opportunity myself, so no problem at all.
Which side are you on? On taking a stand, and wishywashiness
MoD: First of all, I just want to say that I’ve tried to keep up with all of the news and all of the interviews that you’ve done, and to see someone who’s so strong on choice and reproductive health and who’s emphasizing the value of connecting with voters instead of making promises to special interest groups is a refreshing change of pace.
In the first big interview you did [after your announcement] which I was glad to see you did with Ruth Conniff at The Progressive… the first quote is “I don’t think you have to make this choice about being on one side or the other” and you went on to [talk] about growing the economy, and how everyone wins when we have a good system, and supporting collective bargaining, but people are giving you a hard time about comments like this indicating that you’re too ambivalent, or too moderate to please either side, and some people have even suggested your ambivalence echoes the empty rhetoric of Walker who makes similar claims but is actually very partisan.
While on the one hand as an independent voter, I can really relate to this idea that there aren’t always only two sides to every story, [on the other hand], the first thing that pops into my mind when I hear this is that song “Which Side Are You On?” that we sang at the Capitol protests and that is sung still by the Solidarity singers. What do you really think you can you do to move past this sort of toxic and divisive rhetoric without seeming like you’re not willing to take a stand on the issues that really matter the most to preserving Wisconsin values and to standing up for Wisconsin workers and students and educators?
Mary Burke: Heather, I would like to say just to start off with, you know, getting into this race, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel pretty darn strongly about where I think this state needs to be headed and how discouraged and worried I am about the direction that we are headed. So there’s no wishy-washiness in my view in terms of, you know, important issues for Wisconsin and certainly education is one of the top ones. I talk about jobs a lot because I do believe that there are a lot of people who are unemployed and really struggling to get by and we do have to emphasize what’s going to get jobs growing here in Wisconsin. But also I think that the direction that we’re headed in terms of education is really frightening to me. The statewide voucher expansion we’re talking about, I actively fought against and I think that I am very worried about what will happen in the next four years with regards to taking the caps off and funding them through a continued siphoning of funds that should be going to public education.
On private school vouchers
MoD: I read in another interview that that you don’t support expansion of the program but you wouldn’t necessarily end the program or stop what’s going on now. I’d like to hear a little bit more about where you stand there. I mean, obviously, [as you said in that interview] there’s no data that demonstrates that the program should be expanded, or that parents want it to be expanded – 79% of the applicants [in 2013] under the expanded program were kids who were already not in the public schools.
Mary Burke: Mmm-hmm.
MoD: But, there is data out there that the voucher system that we have now, particularly in Milwaukee, isn’t out-performing traditional public schools, and there’s a request from the United States Department of Justice that the Racine and Milwaukee programs stop discriminating against children with special needs, and DPI and the Walker administration have done nothing about this yet. So I guess my question on vouchers is: If you don’t support a full repeal of the voucher system, how exactly do you plan to improve their performance and accountability without draining more taxpayer funds from the public school budget?
Mary Burke: Sure. Well, first, in the interview I gave regarding the voucher, statewide voucher expansion, the emphasis I definitely placed is in not taking off the caps or letting the voucher expand. Then in terms of rolling back that statewide voucher expansion, you know, as Governor I would have to work with the legislature and certainly would do that but it would be obviously only in conjunction with the legislature that could happen. So that’s my stand in terms of the statewide voucher expansion. And then in terms of Milwaukee and Racine, where the program already is, I do believe any schools that are receiving public taxpayer money need to be held accountable and I would focus on quality and make sure we do have the accountability in place and that we’re able to make sure that if there are going to be these choices that they’re good choices. But again, if schools take public money they need to be accountable, and they need to be accepting students just like the public schools do.
MoD: Well, I couldn’t agree more on that. But I wonder though, if the legislature were fully amenable and took up a bill in an honest way and you received a bill on your desk as Governor recommending that the voucher system as it exists now be dissolved, is that something that you would sign?
Mary Burke: Well, I would look first and foremost in Milwaukee and Racine where it already is and you have 25,000 students in there, I think we have to look to quality of education above all else and I would work first toward that and the accountability. I don’t foresee any time in the near future that the legislature will be able to work at anything else and so that’s what I would certainly focus on is making sure that the accountability is there now, and that would be a top priority.
On public employees, and Act 10
MoD: Another question that I have has to do with comments that you’ve made regarding worker rights and your defense of collective bargaining. But I’m curious about remarks you’ve made about “changes that needed to be made” to balance the budget. It’s a demand of our Constitution that every budget is balanced, and so I’m curious what exactly you meant by those "changes.” What changes do you feel that Act 10 fixed – or what problems do you think that Act 10 has actually solved?
Mary Burke: Well, I think that were budget issues and with regard to contributions to pension and healthcare that were already on the table, um, that those were the areas that I think that changes that needed to be made.
MoD: Are you referring to the concessions that the unions were willing to make before collective bargaining entered the discussion?
Mary Burke: Yes.
On Citizens United and big money in politics
MoD: Another thing I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about is how I find it kind of comically ironic that the Walker campaign has, out of the gate, tried to peg you as this wealthy elitist, and has criticized you for the wealth that you’ve earned through your own family business, while Walker himself, who has no real-world experience in the private sector, has broken his own record for fundraising in his campaigns and is bringing in tons and tons of out-of-state dollars in special interest money to fund his campaigns. A huge percentage of this money, as you know, comes from the school privatization lobby, which employs at least 3 former legislators from Wisconsin and has these very high profile people [working for it], the same people who are trying to push through the anti-education legislation we’re seeing in the capitol right now. So it becomes a little less funny to me when we think that, even if you’re able to spend, as rumored, up to $5 million of your own money, that’s a drop in the bucket to the $60-some million Walker spent on his last campaign. So my question to you is, where do you stand on the role of big money in politics and do you support efforts to overturn Citizens United and amend the US Constitution to limit the use of money as political speech?
Mary Burke: Yes, I absolutely do. I think that there is way too much money in politics and that it can have a corrupting influence and I wish we had a different system.
On "engaged philanthropy," poverty, and systemic solutions to social problems
MoD: A separate but related issue, and this connects to public education, too, is the role that you see yourself having as an “engaged philanthropist.” I saw this talk that you gave at the UW-Madison on “Engaged Philanthropy” and I really admired what you had to say there - not just about your level of commitment and your hands-on success with programs like AVID/TOPS, but also what seems to be a really sincere and intelligent understanding that we need to address the real root of some of the problems that are facing the students in our schools that have to do with social inequities. That said, I’m also pretty skeptical of a philanthropic model of addressing problems that really require systemic solutions. And I think of people like Betsy DeVos [of] the American Federation for Children [a major lobby for privatization of public schools in Wisconsin] who has very famously said that she always expects a “return” on her philanthropic “investments” and I wonder, first of all, where you really stand on that issue and second, what would you do as governor to address those root causes of the achievement gaps that we might call “opportunity gaps”?
Mary Burke: What was the first question?
MoD: The first question is: where do you see the role of philanthropy in fixing social problems, and do you, as people like Betsy DeVos, expect some kind of “return” on your philanthropic investments?
Mary Burke: No, I wouldn’t. I don’t ever term my investments, um, return on investments. I do, I believe, I look at whether it improves people’s lives and certainly the philanthropy and the giving that I’ve done is around improving people’s lives rather than some of the other types of philanthropy, and particularly around those who need support the most. So of course I evaluate whether the giving that I do is improving people’s lives but I don’t expect a return on the investment and you know maybe there’s times some of what I’ve done has only improved things for just a little while, whether it’s something like donating money so little kids have Christmas presents, you know I [muffled] there’s just something in me that believes people should have food to eat and should be able to enjoy special moments, like a holiday.
MoD: [And] to what extent do you think the problems we’re facing, and for our kids in our schools, need to be solved in a more systemic way?
|Burke cites this 2007 book as the inspiration for her |
belief that "we shouldn't use poverty as an excuse" for
not "making sure students are getting the education that
they need." This book looks at practices at 15 high-poverty
schools that were successful largely through strategies of
teacher collaboration and individualized curriculum
development. While educators applaud the models of
success presented in the book, critics argue that the book
excludes the most precarious inner-city schools. Others
critique the very idea of a "no-excuses" approach
which disregards the impacts of poverty at the peril
of our kids. In "The Poverty Trap," P.L. Thomas makes
precisely this argument in a piece just published today.
Mary Burke: I do believe that we do need to address the issues through much more systemic changes that I think actually get back to jobs. There’s no social program better than a good-paying job. But in light of that, I also do feel that we, in education we shouldn’t use poverty as an excuse. And I think around the country there are schools that have very high levels of poverty, 90%+ type levels of poverty, who have closed the opportunity – or the achievement – gap, and I think that we have to keep that in mind, that we can’t wait around for poverty to be eliminated ... before we make sure students are getting the education that they need. Does that make it more difficult? Absolutely. These are not easy issues at all. But there’s lots of children who have been born into very challenging circumstances who are still able to achieve and take advantage of opportunities through education.
MoD: And how specifically, do you see those programs as being successful?
Mary Burke: Well, one of the books that I read that has inspired me is It’s Being Done [by Karin Chenoweth, 2007] and I actually created a grant program that’s being implemented in two Madison elementary schools and it’s called the We Can Do It Grant and it really uses on five strategies that are very in line with what the school district, the Madison School District under the new superintendent is doing but it really does get down to what is happening in the classroom: support for teachers and best instructional practices, and how teachers work together to really be able to strategize how best to support student learned.
On the Common Core, High Stakes Testing, School Report Cards and Educator Effectiveness
MoD: That sounds like a very localized, school-specific strategy that I would certainly support, too, so I it makes me wonder, where do you stand on things like the recently adopted [national] Common Core State Standards and how the tests that will be used to measure that will be connected to our new School Report Cards and Educator Effectiveness?
Mary Burke: Well, I’ll take those in sort of separate pieces because I think they should be looked at separately. I support the Common Core as long as it’s implemented in a way in which it’s meant to be implemented and that teachers get the support they need to implement it. Wisconsin’s one ranking is 38th in the country in terms of our standards, and I have seen recently they show that we have some of the lowest reading scores in terms of African American students in the country. So I think we do have to make sure that we have standards that are ensuring that our students are learning and developing the critical thinking skills that are going to make them college or career ready – job ready - when they graduate. But the devil is in the details, and in the implementation there, and I think that if it’s done well it benefits all students and that doesn’t mean there’s not, it doesn’t set the bar, it sets a higher bar but it doesn’t mean it sets [muffled] higher learning where student learning can be as well, I think it makes a lot of sense and it will help us improve levels of student learning in Wisconsin. Now in terms of the testing, you know, I think that any testing that is done whether it’s done around the WKCE or around Common Core, I think you have to make sure that it is a tool that is helping to improve against student learning. And I think that it’s real important; no one wants to overtest children, and unless it is a good tool for assessing where we’re at and also how we can improve then I think you have to consider whether it’s useful testing or not.
MoD: What do you think about the way these tests are now tied to School Report Cards and Educator Effectiveness? I know many of us are concerned that there’s a danger here that we’ll become so focused on improving those scores that we’ll continue to underserve the kids that most need our help.
Mary Burke: Well I think that the School Report Cards, while they serve as one tool, I think that they tend to be heavily skewed based on demographics, particularly low-income students, and I don’t think they accurately reflect the quality of the school or the quality of the educational experience that is available there, so I think they have tremendous shortcomings, depending on how they are used, but I also think that there is value in having a Report Card, but that could certainly be improved upon in a number of ways. That being said, I think that in terms of Educator Effectiveness, my feeling has always been that, well, I’ll preface it with this: I have a lot of friends who are teachers and when I talk to them about the assessments and how they’re evaluated, well frankly they don’t think that what’s being used now is helpful at all. And so I think that Educator Effective, again if done well, with the right amount of support, can be a tool for professional development and help support teachers to be as good as they can be and I think it’s all how it’s used. And it just really is identifying ways that teachers can improve. And whether it’s accurate in terms of assessing our best teachers, too. Obviously there’s been a lot of work done across the US and a lot of implementation of systems that don’t work and so I think that there’s no doubt that there will be challenges with it but also I think if it’s done well, it is an opportunity to improve teacher quality and support professional development.
MoD: Do you think that those measurements should be used to assess teacher pay?
Mary Burke: I think only if it’s done in a way that is accurate, let’s say, and that it’s something that’s embraced and seen as a positive by teachers.
MoD: So if it was teacher-run, you wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to that?
Mary Burke: I look at what’s happened around the country and that there’s not many systems that have been implemented that are doing well and have in fact helped to improve teacher quality so I think we have to look and wonder whether they’re…whether it’s really going to support that. Some of my friends who are teachers are incredible teachers who put in tons of extra hours and do, are incredibly successful with students, and I ask them: wouldn’t they want to be more recognized or compensated for the extraordinary job that they’re doing? And a lot of them don’t. They feel that, especially at the high school level, it’s a team effort of all the district teachers and support staff that are involved, and trying to single out exactly who’s responsible for what is probably, is difficult to do on a fair basis.
...and back to poverty (and jobs)
MoD: I’d like to return to something you said a minute ago about “using poverty as an excuse” in talking about what we need to do in our schools, and I agree that there are a lot of great models out there of how we can work with limited resources and with schools that have high concentrations of poverty, to achieve academic success, but the data very clearly shows that the common denominator and the number one indicator of low academic achievement is poverty, and income. So at a certain level, it’s not so much an “excuse” as the fact. That the poorest students are least likely to do well. We know that the highest scoring poor kids are still less likely to graduate from college than the lowest scoring rich kids. And I think programs like AVID/TOPS and the PEOPLE program really understand this, and address this issue, and provide some very long-term hands-on solutions to that. But as Governor, how would you address these root causes of what are the challenges are facing our students, and I’m talking about outside the classroom. What is your plan for working with impoverished communities in Wisconsin to help get them back on their feet?
Mary Burke: Jobs. I think that first and foremost, that’s what’s going to be the answer. We have to have better training programs, we have to make jobs more accessible, particularly in the areas where transportation is an issue, and look at how we can turn that situation around.
On the high speed rail (and jobs)
MoD: What’s your plan for dealing with the high-speed rail debacle that fell apart after Walker’s rejection of the federal funds that were earmarked for that plan?
Mary Burke: Well, you can’t turn the clock back on that one. Those funds are gone. But certainly as Governor, I would make sure we’re actually pursuing other options like that that are available in the future. If other opportunities like that become available, we should be taking advantage of them. Infrastructure in the state that creates jobs and also helps bridge us to the next century and sort of the future economy I think has to be looked at very seriously. And we need that added investment in the state. It does translate into jobs.
On the Gogebic Taconite Mines in the Penokee Hills (and jobs)
MoD: Where do you stand on the Penokee mines? I’ve been following this debate as well and I know you’ve gone on the record and said that we need to put jobs where the jobs are needed most, but that is such a heated debate, with some on the left even referring to these as the “genocide mines”. Looking at the bigger social issues, and thinking about how that issue has really hurt and divided that part of the state, what’s your plan for learning more about that issue and what would you do as Governor about the concerns that many progressives have that that mine is not just destroying the environment up there but also doing really irreparable damage to our relationship with the people who live there?
Mary Burke: Well, I think that the most important thing is to make sure that I’m communicating and talking with people there. I’ve already been, I was up in the North area this summer, I was up there two weeks ago already, and obviously it’s an important area of the state. And certainly with regards to the mine, you know, under the current rules and environmental regulations, I would not have approved of the mine, I think that the legislation that was put through that weakened our environmental legislations, was not one that serves the state well, and does not serve the people in that area, and certainly puts at risk our water and natural resources. So I couldn’t, I, but I do think that there are ways in terms of balancing job creation and protecting our natural resources but that certainly was not the way that it should’ve been done…and we need much stronger safeguards in place. But I firmly believe that, as Governor, the state needs to be working with regional and local areas to figure out what’s best for them. You know, I think that we’re on this trend right now in Madison where we have state politicians telling local communities how they are best served and I don’t agree with that approach.
On getting the act together
MoD: Neither do I. I’ve noticed your website is a little sparse – it has a bio page, but where are people supposed to go if they want to see about your upcoming schedule or learn more about where you stand on the issues?
Mary Burke: You seem incredibly well-informed [Editor's note: blushing], so you’ve apparently been able to do the research. We’re 5 weeks out of an announcement and we’re working on our website as we speak and that will be up in the next month and will certainly be the best place for people to go to learn about where I stand on the issues.
MoD: Well, thank you so much for your time. I know we went well beyond the time I was promised, so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and I look forward to meeting you in person.
Mary Burke: I do too, Heather, thanks very much for your time. Goodbye.
MoD: Ok, take care. Have a great day.
Mary Burke: Bye-bye [hangs up]
Postscript: On getting to know Mary Burke
[at this point on the recording we hear cackles and scuffles and pitterpatter of the feet of my 9-year-old, who'd marvelously fulfilled his end of the bargain by keeping himself and his sister quiet as mice during the interview, but had been listening in at the end. I didn't realize I'd recorded this last bit.]
Son of MoD: Are you touched to know she would like to me you? Are you excited to meet her?
MoD: Yeah, I’ll look forward to meeting her.
Son of MoD: Are you happy to know she wants to meet you too?
[recording ends; kids get the ice cream they were promised/bribed]
Yes, I am. I am happy to know that one of the people who wants to be our new governor also wants to meet the people she'd govern, even if it is just to get the message out. I'm happy to help in that, if she's serious about listening to what we have to say. But mostly I'm just happy that we get to vote again - in just one short year - for a new governor. I don't know what the nine months leading into the primary will bring, or who will emerge the winner, but one thing I'm totally sure of is that our choice next November will be very clear, and Wisconsinites might finally be able to start focusing again on working together toward improving things, rather than protecting and defending them. And at that most basic level, we should all, always, be on the same side.