My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Long-time readers of this blog will remember how I railed against this program when it was created for exactly these reasons. Sometimes it is nice to be proven right in such a short time period.
If you were paying close attention to the news a few months ago, you might have seen a brief mention of something that is very rarely seen in the wild — the death of a government program. The death of this program was welcome, but also serves as a lesson and a reminder of what can happen when government runs amok.
In the waning days of winter in 2007, then-Gov. Jim Doyle championed a new creation of his called the Wisconsin Covenant. It was an ill-conceived plan designed for political advantage and sold with a wrapping of good intentions.
The Wisconsin Covenant was an agreement between eighth-graders and Wisconsin in which the state guaranteed the eighthgraders a spot in a state public university, private university or state technical college and a financial aid package to pay for said education. In order to receive this, the students were required to graduate from high school with a “B” average or higher, take some college prep courses and stay out of trouble.
The reason Doyle created the Wisconsin Covenant was to create a wedge issue in the Legislature. In the 2006 election he had defeated Mark Green to be re-elected and the Democrats took control of the state Senate. The Republicans continued to control the state Assembly.
The Wisconsin Covenant was a program that sounded great in the press. After all, getting more good kids into college is politically popular.
But the budget was already in deficit and Doyle was proposing more tax increases. There was no money for it. Doyle set up the Wisconsin Covenant as a political foil to try to make the Assembly Republicans look antieducation during the budget battle.
Furthermore, Doyle hoped to use the legions of families relying on the Wisconsin Covenant as a voting constituency to pressure his political opponents in the future. He was allowing kids to sign the Wisconsin Covenant even before it passed the Legislature to further his political agenda.
Unfortunately, it was Wisconsin’s kids who were used for Doyle’s political games.
One can tell that the Wisconsin Covenant was just a political trick because of the way it was eventually put into practice. Doyle’s budget funded an office to manage it for $360,000, but never actually funded the program itself to make good on that promise. He did not even bother to provide an estimate for what it would cost.
Eventually, 20,000 good Wisconsin teens signed up for the Wisconsin Covenant in the hope of having a pathway into higher education and a way to pay for it. What they did not count on was that Doyle made a promise he could not keep. A kid with a B average and no criminal record could already easily make it into any number of colleges or technical schools, and Doyle never budgeted to pay for any meaningful financial assistance for these kids.
In 2010, some families were notified that they would only be receiving $250 for their child’s college education. Perhaps they bought a book or two with that, but it had no meaningful impact on their ability to afford higher education.
Thankfully, when Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majorities took power in 2011, they put an end to enrollment in the Wisconsin Covenant. This year’s high school seniors were the last class allowed to sign up and the fulfillment of the state’s pledge to them in May, however meager that is, will mark the end of the Wisconsin Covenant.
If we have learned anything from the story of the Wisconsin Covenant, it is that a politician’s promise means nothing without action to back it up. And promises made that rely on future politicians to fulfill are not a promise at all. This is important to remember when considering the promises that politicians are making today.
(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)