Ron Johnson: Amendment aimed at curbing federal abuse of power

Originally published here in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 12, 2016.

Last summer, I saw just what was at risk from regulatory overreach when a young Milwaukeean testified at a hearing of the Senate committee that I chair, sharing her story of adversity, compassion and commitment. Justine "Justice" Shorter told how her eyesight faded to legal blindness when she was a student at Milwaukee's Messmer High School — and how the school responded.

Messmer is a Catholic school that educates many students in Milwaukee's groundbreaking parental school choice program. It does this on a voucher that delivers a fraction of the funding that the city's public schools get. On its own, Messmer couldn't afford the costly adaptive equipment Justice would need. Donors stepped in, but Justice pointed out the crucial role Messmer played: "That technology, coupled with love, support, attention and time that I received from the staff at Messmer, allowed me to truly thrive and excel."

Justice was testifying at a hearing last July examining the success of Milwaukee's school choice program — and how these schools had been affected by a years-long federal investigation. More than 25,000 Milwaukee children use the program to attend schools that their parents pick. As Justice said, those schools should know that the state funding that parents use will complement, not complicate, the education of children with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice was complicating it. By last summer, its probe of the choice program had run four years without finding any wrongdoing.

The Obama administration's hostility to school choice programs is well known. The administration tried defunding a program in Washington. It conducted legal warfare against one in Louisiana. School choice opponents, many of whom are allies of the administration, for decades had tried to kill Milwaukee's choice program. I and many others worried that the Department of Justice's probe was fueled by politics.

We had reason to worry. The Obama administration has an undeniable pattern of using regulatory overreach and intimidation to further its political aims. The president is unilaterally rewriting immigration and labor law by his infamous "phone and pen." Lois Lerner used the power of the IRS to systematically target President Barack Obama's political enemies.

The Department of Justice closed its school choice investigation in December 2015 without ever finding wrongdoing. It did so after the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which I chair, sent three letters asking about the scope, reasons and findings of the probe. No answers existed to some of my questions, and the department refused to answer the others. It did not come to Milwaukee to explain itself to the people whose schools it endangered.

I have been involved in improving and supporting both public and private schools since before I ran for office. I have heard over and over for six years from Wisconsin families about how they value the power that school choice gives them to find better opportunity for their children.

Those families' stories motivated me to offer an amendment to the bill that appropriates money to the Department of Justice — an amendment to close off the discredited legal excuse the department used to drag out its probe. My amendment simply requires the American with Disabilities Act to be followed as written; to be used as intended. The amendment does not restrict the government's current authority to investigate discrimination. It only keeps the federal government from expanding its power beyond what the law provides.

It stops the Obama administration from reopening this front in its attack on school choice. The damage this administration has done to the rule of law and our constitutional protections is so grave that it sometimes seems abstract. But that damage hurts individual Americans, and, in Milwaukee, we can see that it endangered a fundamental need — education.

"We all should be able to make the very best choices for ourselves, our families, our future," Justice testified. She's right. My amendment is aimed squarely at protecting Wisconsinites' right to make those choices.