An interview we conducted with Chris Abele a few weeks back revealed sides to the young Executive not previously known to the general public. For instance, did you know that Abele is quite the policy wonk? Yes, to our surprise, he has an unusual fondness for data, analyses, and everything else that make a bar full of accountants a fascinating company to keep.
Yet, Abele's saving grace from this dingy underworld of numbers, symbols, and metadata is his encyclopedic knowledge of, well, everything else. Some people are talkers; some are storytellers; but Abele is a skilled conversationalist. He genuinely enjoys the company of others.
Considering Abele's non-partisan M.O., we thought it would be interesting to get his take on issues like Voter ID and School Choice. Abele said that any good Voter ID law will protect against fraud while also providing access to the ballot box. Sounds simple, right? The trick, however, is adding adequate voter safeguards without losing voter access. Traditionally, this has been a rather tough balance to achieve.
Abele cited a 2004 gubernatorial election statistic in Washington showing that the instances of voter fraud are more infrequent than people may think - somewhere in the neighborhood of .0009%. Abele said that examples of voter fraud cited by proponents of Voter ID laws are often non-existent or overblown. We agree. However, in a race as close as, say, Wisconsin's recent Supreme Court election, 1,676 votes (the amount of illegal ballots cast in Washington's gubernatorial election) could have swung our Supreme Court in a radically different direction.
Abele was careful not to accuse Wisconsin Republicans for a law that deliberately repressed minority voters, but added that it would be an insult to their intelligence to suggest these authors were completely unaware of the impact it would have on minority voters. At the very least, Abele said, that Wisconsin's Voter ID law wasn't a proactive measure meant to ensure more access for eligible minority voters.
Since it's school choice week, we asked Abele if parents should have more freedom to send their kids to the schools of their choosing, or if bureaucracies - such as school districts, should reserve such rights. Although he didn't answer our questions with the specificity that we had hoped, he laid out some important steps he thought, if followed, would make choice schools more marketable.
To Abele, school choice is one-third of a good idea. There are several steps that need to take place before "education value is to be consistently improved." First, Abele says there needs to be significant market incentive for schools to be started. Typically, companies succeed in a free market system when they find ways to convert market demand into profit, which is necessary before choice schools can be truly successful.
Second, Abele said that parents must be able to make informed and accurate decisions about the effectiveness of competing schools. In an ideal marketplace, consumers learn about products through advertisements, word of mouth, and personal experience. Many times, however, consumers are duped before they discover quality products. Advertisements come from biased sources, and testimonials are highly subjective. There needs to be a system in place to help inform parents about the schools that best fit their children.
And third, Abele said a solution ought to be found that ensures schools continue to improve despite having a "captive market" or families that live in such areas where their range of options are substantially reduced. Abele had intimated that these steps may not be fully realized as long as education reform becomes an issue of which team wins or whose ideological views are validated.
Interestingly, Abele pointed out that he's a board member of "Schools that Can," a Milwaukee non-profit organization dedicated to expanding access for low-income families to high-performing inner-city schools. The reason Abele is working with Schools that Can - despite its intrinsic value of increasing the public good - is because they are more interested in sharing best academic practices than worrying about who wins. It's a slight change of pace from the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.
Unfortunately, there is a reality that we cannot circumvent. Republicans predominately support choice schools, and Democrats largely oppose them. The lines drawn in the sand are less about the proficiency of choice schools and more about whether they are unionized. Republicans will say that choice schools produce the same or better academic results as public schools, but do so for a fraction of the cost to taxpayers. Democrats argue that choice schools are untested and unaccountable. These are talking points, not an honest discussion between different groups.
Abele, not taking either tactic, says that if incontrovertible evidence were shown that the strategies implemented by choice schools worked, he will be the first in line to kick down the doors in support of the cause. His concern, however, is that free markets are good at improving the lot of things, but aren't good at fixing everything. Abele sees school choice as a mixed bag - at least for now - having parts that show promise and parts that show vulnerability.
In the year that Chris Abele has been the Milwaukee County Executive, he's done an excellent job steering away from issues that have strong partisan overtones. And this is not to say that he's unwilling to discuss issues that interest voters. Abele is a unique brand of politician because he refuses to get caught in the political fray, which we believe the vast majority of constituents find quite refreshing.
At this point, Abele's only goal is steering Milwaukee County away from it's historic downward fiscal trajectory. His first budget has largely been viewed by the public as a succes - despite veto overrides by the County Board. With gladness, we give him high scores for balancing a tough budget, staying above the political fray, and striving to reform our county government.