This column begins in Arkansas, pivots to Wisconsin and concludes with facts that have me rethinking part of my long-held antagonism toward the out-state voters who helped bring us Republicans Scott Walker and Donald Trump.
First to Arkansas.
The New York Times recently published a Sunday Review cover story provocatively headlined: “In the land of self-defeat.” Author Monica Potts returned to her rural Arkansas home of Van Buren County in 2017 and is writing a book about low-income women in her native state.
Her Times piece told of a fight over a local library and what Potts described as the “go-it-alone” mythology that plagues small-town America. She described how a plan to pay a librarian $25 per hour met a hailstorm of opposition. She quoted one Facebook critic: “Call me narrow-minded but I’ve never understood why a librarian needs a four-year degree. We were taught Dewey decimal system in grade school. Never sounded like anything too tough.”
Wrote Potts: “The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here. The answer was, for the most part, not very much.”
Her conclusions were dark ones. “I’ve realized that it is true that people here think life here has taken a turn for the worse. What’s also true, though, is that many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families. It’s an attitude that is against taxes, immigrants and government, but also against helping your neighbor.”
Later she wrote: “Most Americans live in cities, but our political system gives rural areas like Van Buren outsize voting power. My time here makes me believe that the impeachment scandal will not hurt Mr. Trump — and that Democrats who promise to make the lives of people like my neighbors better might actually help him.”
I emailed the article to Kathy Cramer because Potts prominently quoted the University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist from a 2016 column Cramer wrote for Vox. Cramer, of course, gained national notoriety this decade for revealing the politics of rural resentment in Wisconsin before it was a widely understood thing.
Cramer quickly emailed me back with a note of caution.
“Such an interesting article, and of course I was flattered to be quoted,” she said. “But it was awfully dire.”
Two things, she told me, give her pause about its relevance to Wisconsin. “One is a curiosity I have about whether the impact of the trade wars on our dairy farms is causing some folks to question Trump’s leadership. Democrats should recognize, though, that losing faith in Trump does not automatically mean support for a Democratic candidate. The trouble is that lots of people, in rural America and elsewhere, think neither party represents them.
“The other thing is that in Wisconsin, rural communities have passed a ton of school referenda in recent years. Seems to me like people are quite willing to support their local schools with taxes if they know that money is going to stay in their community,” Cramer wrote.
She suggested I visit with Rob DeMeuse, a former public school teacher and current PhD candidate in the UW-Madison School of Education, who has exhaustively researched school referenda across the state. He is developing a tool to predict which referenda will pass based on some 60 local factors. Cramer is on his dissertation committee.
So I met with DeMeuse at a local Panera and — in less than an hour — he blew up much of my oversimplified perception of out-state voters and how much they value public education.
Some necessary background: Walker was elected governor in 2010, then dropped his Act 10 bomb attacking teachers’ pay and benefits and their collective bargaining rights, shepherding a decade of curtailing Wisconsin’s tradition of state support for public education. Because rural and small-town voters elected Walker three times (counting a failed recall vote), it was easy to see them as complicit in his anti-education efforts.
Now comes DeMeuse with his deep-dive data demonstrating that rural and small-town areas that strongly back Republicans have supported spending on their schools at the same historically high rates this decade as have all regions of the state.
“Trust in federal and state government has basically cratered,” DeMeuse told me, “but trust in local government (which includes schools) is still relatively high.”
He shared charts that showed that in the eight most recent years under Act 10, the proportion of approved referenda statewide has steadily increased from about 63 percent to 86 percent in the 2018-2019 school year.
Surprisingly, at least to me, referenda in the subset of rural districts were approved at almost the same pace — increasing from 61 to 86 percent in the most recent school year. So, while some rural voters may think teachers are overpaid and have cushy benefits, that didn’t stop them from putting their own money into their local schools.
“These referendum dollar amounts and passage rates are only getting higher,” he said, adding that $2.2 billion in school spending in Wisconsin was approved via referenda in the most recent academic year.
Another way of looking at it, he said, is that the average person in Wisconsin spent $1,349 on school referenda in the eight years under Act 10 compared to only $606 in the eight years that preceded it.
DeMeuse’s analysis is that rural voters back school spending because “they know that they are going to get their fair share of it, it’s not going anywhere, and that’s really appealing.”
Now, a liberal’s spin on all of this is that local voters were blackmailed into voting for extra local money because Walker and his allies decimated public education in pursuit of their real motive — destroying the statewide teachers’ union as a progressive political force. Then they were able to brag about cutting taxes, when all they actually did was force property taxpayers to step up.
That said, it’s heartening to realize that all of Wisconsin apparently still cares mightily about the quality of local public education. Which, to me, hadn’t always been clear.
Arkansas, it seems, we’re not.