Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Mayor Norquist Sleeping on School Choice?

By - Jul 5th, 2001 10:43 am
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In the London Times, Mayor John Norquist is prominently quoted in a story on Milwaukee’s school choice program. In Washington D.C., a commercial touting choice features Norquist as super salesman. But back home, where the Wisconsin legislature is threatening to drastically cut back the program, Norquist has been missing in action.

“We haven’t heard a peep out of him,” says Rep. Scott Walker. “Norquist has been surprisingly absent on this.”

At least, that’s what some legislators say. “We haven’t heard a peep out of him,” says Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa). “Norquist has been surprisingly absent on this. It’s amazing, when you think of someone who’s been so highly visible on this issue.”

“It’s been very disappointing to us,” says state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “I don’t know where he’s been. I think many people feel that way.”

Senate Democrats, lead by majority leader Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), have sliced in half the payments for school choice, dropping it to just $2,776 per pupil, in their version of the state budget. The proposal was supported by Milwaukee Democratic state senators Brian Burke, Gwen Moore and Gary George, who represent the parents who would be affected. Meanwhile, out state Republicans are fighting to save the program, which leaves them annoyed at both the Democrats and Norquist.

Darling points out that in the last election “the Republican assembly really got beat up for supporting school choice.” The Democrats ran ads attacking rural Republicans for taking away state school money for their area and giving it to the Milwaukee school choice program. “So they feel very raw about this issue,” Darling says.

But the dissatisfaction goes beyond GOP members. School choice proponents in Milwaukee have also noticed Norquist’s low profile. On the record, they say the mayor has been fighting the good fight. “Whenever we have asked for his help, he has responded,” says consultant George Mitchell, a longtime choice activist.

But off the record, another activist says, “you wonder where Norquist has been putting his energies. The mayor could give cover to people like Burke who could say ‘my mayor says school choice is important to him.'” The same source says the mayor’s office sent no representative to two strategy meetings on school choice.

Norquist’s aide admits that school choice funding could become “a clay pigeon for cuts.”

By contrast, the source says, “Norquist had a strong hand in the 1995 legislation by letting Milwaukee Democrats know how important choice was to him.”

Norquist’s policy director Steve Jacquart says the mayor has been relying on the school choice constituency he helped build, including George and Susan Mitchell and former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Howard Fuller. But the most compelling lobbyists, he says, are “the kids [who attend choice schools].”

But Jacquart concedes a problem: “It’s obvious the Milwaukee [legislative] delegation isn’t on board on this issue. In the past, Norquist has leaned on them. But let’s face it; the Milwaukee delegation isn’t driving this train. It’s Chuck Chvala.”

Perhaps, but he might have been derailed without the votes of Burke, George and Moore.

Rep. Shirley Krug (D-Milwaukee) insists Chvala has “a poker chip strategy” in place and is simply threatening school choice to get other concessions from Republicans. By that line of reasoning, Norquist doesn’t need to bring out the big guns to save choice.

But Jacquart seems to think the program is in trouble: “I think where they [Senate Democrats] are going is to separate choice from the education fund and make it part of general purpose revenues. And that makes it a clay pigeon for cuts.”

So why isn’t the mayor working harder on the issue? “My guess is part of his invisibility is the [Marilyn Figueroa] scandal – he just doesn’t have the credibility,” says Walker.

But a close advisor to the mayor denies there’s been any decision to take a lower profile on issues. It’s more a matter of priorities, Jacquart suggests: “We’ve got a fiscal problem. We’ve got a lot of issues, like shared revenue, that are critical to Milwaukee.”

Translation: the mayor pushes Chvala for the shared revenue and other items he needs and lets the GOP fight for choice. “The Republicans are carrying his water and he’s not helping,” one lobbyist observes. Which is precisely why Republicans are complaining.

Short Takes

If Scott Walker has complaints about the mayor, well, the feeling is mutual. Steve Jacquart offered this salvo: “John Norquist has shown more leadership on school choice than Scott Walker has shown on property tax relief. If it weren’t for Scott Walker porking up the state budget with special interest favors that stick it to local property taxpayers we could spend more time fighting for sound educational policies.”

Jacquart then ticked off several items in the Assembly Republican’s version of the budget, including exempting restaurant kitchen equipment from property taxation. Jacquart concludes with this peace offering: “I know the mayor appreciates Scott’s help on the [school choice] issue, but his commitment and influence on this issue pales in comparison to the mayor’s.”

Meanwhile, in response to Bert Grover’s comments on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster, we received several outraged letters, as well as some anonymous observations from a local political consultant, who says Burmaster intends to focus much of her energy on Milwaukee. “She offered jobs to Milwaukee people who couldn’t afford to take them,” this person observes. “Some of them would have been eye openers. I think she’s going to be in Milwaukee quite a bit.”

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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