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Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

Fix School Choice, Mayor Barrett Says

But Republicans want to expand the flawed program

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Lawmakers are debating whether to expand the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to the suburbs—even with its documented flaws intact.

A bill introduced in the state Assembly would allow private schools in the Milwaukee suburbs to participate in the choice program, but it doesn’t allow suburban kids to go to those schools. No legislators from the city have supported the bill, but a few from the suburbs— among them state Rep. Leah Vukmir (RWauwatosa) and Rep. Mark Honadel (RSouth Milwaukee) are listed as co-sponsors. State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) are co-sponsors in the state Senate.

But instead of fixing the problems with the school choice program, the bill would compound them. Milwaukee legislators have been attempting to fix the school choice funding flaw, which penalizes Milwaukee city taxpayers by making them pay more for students in the school choice program than they do for students who attend a public school. What’s more, studies have shown that a remarkable number of students in the choice program attend church-affiliated schools, which means that tax dollars are supporting religious education, and not our public schools. With this bill, even more church schools would be able to participate in the program and be funded with your taxes. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has asked legislators to fix the funding flaws before they expand the program.

Remembering Dreyfus:

Last week we lost one of our most colorful politicians, former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus. Although many commentators chose to focus on his red vest, tax refunds and populist style, readers around the globe got a different picture of a man they had probably never heard of before: Dreyfus as a champion of gay rights. According to the Associated Press headline reprinted around the world, “Former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus dies at 81; signed first statewide gay rights law.” Although local news reports tended to downplay that historic move, we’re grateful to the AP reporter, Scott Bauer, for his description of the former guv.

Medical marijuana supporters reminded us that Dreyfus signed another landmark bill into law, the Therapeutic Cannabis Research Act, in 1982. According to the organization Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY), the law didn’t change much, since it relied on the federal government for a supply of medical marijuana. IMMLY is calling on the current governor, Jim Doyle, and the state Legislature, to pass the Jacki Rickert Medical Marijuana Act, which is stalled in the Assembly Health and Health Care Reform Committee, chaired by state Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa). The bill would allow certain individuals to use medical marijuana for health reasons.

Even France:

France, where smoking personified radical intellectualism, sophistication and raw sexuality, went smoke-free last week. So if it can happen in France, why not Wisconsin? Gov. Doyle proposed a statewide ban on smoking last year, but it’s stalled since then. First the excuse was that if individual cities like Wauwatosa, Madison or Appleton went smoke-free, it would destroy their bar and restaurant businesses, since people would go to the next town or suburb to smoke and spend their money. (The obvious answer to that problem would be to go statewide with the ban.) The next excuse was that Wisconsin couldn’t be out of step with other states’ smoking policies. But now Illinois and Minnesota are smokefree, leaving us with no excuses.

On Tuesday, the state Senate Public Health Committee passed a bill on a 3-2 vote to ban smoking in all businesses by 2010. The two obstacles appear to be the Republican-controlled state Assembly and the new leadership in the state Senate. If the elections go as many individuals are predicting, the Wisconsin Assembly will be in the hands of the Democrats in 2009 and the statewide ban on smoking should pass. It will then be up to the Democratic majority leader in the state Senate.

The Cart Before the Horse:

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said he’ll fire the deputy and corrections officer involved in the release of Jaron Jennings, an inmate at the Milwaukee County Jail. He’s also launched an investigation into why Jennings was able to switch his wristband ID with another inmate, which led to the screw-up. (Jennings was captured on Monday.) But shouldn’t Clarke wait for the investigation to play out before he fires anyone? Clarke and the county have already been sued successfully over the way Clarke disciplines his deputies, at great expense to county taxpayers, so he may want to make sure he gets the right guy this time, and not just a scapegoat.

Can’t Pick His Prosecutor:

Former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) attempted to gain a homecourt advantage by asking the court to try him in Waukesha County instead of Dane County, where he was convicted in March 2006. But Dane County Circuit Court Judge Steven Ebert opposed that request. Jensen most likely wanted to escape another round with Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, who won the conviction in Round One, and perhaps hoped to find a more sympathetic jury in Waukesha. Jensen will get a new judge, as Dane County Judge David Flanagan has just been assigned the case.

McGee’s In:

The city of Milwaukee has verified the signatures submitted by Alderman Mike McGee’s campaign, so he will be on the ballot for the Feb. 19 primary. Yet McGee remains in a correctional facility pending his trial after the primary, which should make for an interesting campaign. McGee has been jailed since last summer; he was able to meet the state’s suggested bail, but the feds have kept him locked up, even though he hasn’t been convicted of any crime and legally remains an innocent man. Interestingly, Larry Vincent Howard, who is facing charges similar to McGee’s—intimidating witnesses—had his bail set at $250,000.

Help the Bonobos:

There will be a benefit for the bonobos on Sunday, Jan. 13, 7 p.m., at the venerable Coffee House, located in the basement of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, at 19th Street and Wisconsin Avenue. The Milwaukee Zoological Society’s Gay Reinartz, who recently returned from researching the bonobos in the Congo, and Barbara Bell, the apes’ primary caretaker at the Milwaukee County Zoo, will speak. The benefit will feature the music of Howard Lewis’ Embedded Reporter. Donations of $5 and up will win an evening of excellent music and information about the bonobos (including a copy of the Shepherd’s July cover story on the project). Proceeds will be donated to the Bonobo Species Survival Plan and also to a new effort to expand the bonobos’ quarters in the zoo.

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