Madison, WI is in SOUTHERN Wisconsin, Like only about 50 miles from Illinois. By comparison, it is 300 miles from Madison to Ashland on the state’s northern border. Still, it was 19 degrees last Friday morning in Madison. I have no idea what the temperature was in Ashland. Nor did I really care.
All I was looking for was a warm place. Which I found in a meeting of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. I also found hospitality as warm and welcoming as anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.
There are a number of local public education advocacy groups scattered across Wisconsin. WPEN is a stateside, nonpartisan coalition of these groups. Partners include parents, students, educators, school board members, districts, administrators, community leaders and grassroots groups. Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane does a great job of fitting all the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together.
She was very generous with her help in setting up my visit on this chilly morning. This included getting me together with Marcia Engen and Jim Bowman from Appleton, both active in the Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education. Marcia is a retired educator while Jim is retired as a paper mill executive. Jim is also on the local school board.
My purpose in making the 1,900 mile round trip to Wisconsin was to try and learn why groups supporting public education have sprung up around the state, while there is no similar phenomenon in Alabama. Most definitely, there are deep-seated cultural differences that play a role.
Jim Bowman and I discussed this over lunch. We have both read the fascinating book, American Nations by Colin Woodard, in which he explains in detail how various regions of this country were settled by people who came from very different broodstock. And we agreed that there is undeniable truth of what Woodard reveals.
For example, Alabama was settled by descendants of both Deep South and Greater Appalachia “nations.” Wisconsin’s linage is Yankeedom.
Greater Appalachia settlers came from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain: lowland Scotland, the adjacent Marshes of northern England, and the Scots-Irish controlled north of Ireland. Their ancestors had weathered 800 years of nearly constant warfare. They were proud, independent, and violent.
Deep South settlers were the sons and grandsons of the founders of Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world. Their culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience The prairies of the Alabama Black Belt and the promise of getting rich growing cotton drew them like a light draws a moth. Of course, thousands of slaves were a key part of the equation.
By contrast, the ancestors of early Wisconsin settlers were people who arrived in New England intent on building a moralistic nation of churches and school houses with self-governing communities. Those who settled Yankeedom had a greater faith in government than any other region of the United States. And they valued education. de Tocqueville wrote of New England in 1835, “These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time.”
Another striking difference between the two states is politics. While Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in 2016, the state swung decidedly to the Democrats in Nov. 2018. Republican Scott Walker was hoping to be elected governor for the third time, but lost by 29,227 votes to Democrat Tony Evers.
In the minds of public education supporters, Walker was a dismal failure. He cut funding, supported vouchers and went after both K-12 and higher education. And then claimed he was the “pro-education governor” in his campaign this year.
The irony of his loss is that it came against Tony Evers, who was the incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state.
Over the last decade I’ve become convinced that it really does take a village to raise a child. That good schools are as much about community development as they are about education. For whatever reason, maybe some I have pointed out here, there are people in Wisconsin who understand this better than we do in Alabama.
But that doesn’t mean we have to continually roll over and play dead when it comes to making the case for better public education.