When, if ever, has a president of the United States inserted himself as directly into a legislative issue in Wisconsin as President Barack Obama is doing by visiting Madison on Wednesday? Obama’s visit to a middle school a couple miles from the State Capitol will focus on education – and it comes as Gov. Jim Doyle and others are ramping up their push for a series of educational reforms, including giving much of the power over Milwaukee Public Schools to Milwaukee’s mayor.
Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will be with him, are firm supporters of many of the ideas being incorporated into the legislative package. Wisconsin clearly has to make changes such as these if it wants a decent chance at a share of the $5 billion in the Race to the Top money and other incentive funds Obama and Duncan will distribute over the next couple years.
It appears highly likely a special session of the Legislature will be called in November to consider the education proposals. The outcome is not clear.
There remains a lot of resistance, not only to mayoral takeover in Milwaukee but to proposals that might lead to a system for setting teacher salaries statewide that would include performance incentives. It was a big breakthrough for those seeking change when several key legislators, including Sen. Lena Taylor and State Reps. Pedro Colon and Jason Fields, came up with an alternative plan that was agreeable to Doyle. The three and several others joined Doyle in unveiling the plan last week.
But what’s a bigger card to play than bringing the president to town? There have been lots of presidential visits to Wisconsin in the last few decades, but all of them I can recall focused on either election campaigns or national issues such as the economy or health care. The White House is always very careful in picking times and places for visits and Obama’s trip to Madison now, specifically to talk about education, can only be seen as part of the campaign to push the legislators to join in supporting the reform package.
Which leads to two questions: How openly will Obama say that? Some supporters are concerned that he won’t be direct enough. And what will go on behind the scenes, where Obama is expected to meet with a variety of people, including those involved in the current education debate, out of the view of the news media and public?