U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was in Madison on Thursday for what he perhaps hoped would be a sleepy question-and-answer session with students from Madison East High School. After all, it was 4/20. Would the kids even be paying attention?
As it turns out, they were — and boy did they have some things to say. For nearly 50 minutes, the Oshkosh Republican fielded questions on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to an Obamacare replacement to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Although the media wasn’t invited to the event, one of the students recorded the interaction on her cell phone and later posted it on Facebook, where it was widely shared.
Johnson struggled to answer questions relating to a number of key areas. When asked — as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was in her confirmation hearing — whether he believed in using standards of proficiency versus growth to measure student achievement, he — like DeVos — was unable to differentiate between the two.
“You’re getting into some pretty esoteric educational pedagogy,” he told the student who asked the question. “I’m an accountant, a plastics manufacturer.”
Another student grilled Johnson about his views on school privatization, asking: “How are you able to be here and say you want to help students, when you voted for [DeVos], who has no experience in public schools?”
The student continued: “Public schools are losing their funding [because of] charter schools. Public schools are being forced to shut down in Milwaukee. How can you think [privatization] is helping us?”
Johnson's answer: “Betsy DeVos, I would say she knows a lot about education, she’s been involved on a volunteer basis,” he said. “Her (sic) and her husband literally donated millions of dollars so children trapped in failing schools can have the opportunity you’re having here.” He cited the documentary Waiting for Superman, which chronicles the struggles of several families with students “trapped in inner-city, failing schools” who view charter school vouchers as a “golden ticket” to a successful life.
“It’s not against public education, it’s for free-market competition,” he said. “It would actually improve education across the board and give kids opportunities and I really want to have some other people ask some questions.”
Johnson also struggled to articulate clear views when a student asked if Johnson would vote to go to war with North Korea. “I can’t answer the question,” Johnson said. “I don’t know the exact circumstances.”
He went on to say that the best course of action is for the U.S. to impose economic sanctions on China — North Korea’s biggest and most important ally — to halt the advancement of North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
“You do not want war with North Korea — that is a crazy man,” Johnson said, referring to Kim Jong-Un. “Did you know he murdered his uncle? Threw him to the dogs?”
Johnson was presumably referring to an unconfirmed news story that circulated the internet in 2014 claiming that the Korean leader had ordered his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and his five closest aides to be stripped naked and thrown into a cage with 120 starving dogs. The story later turned out to be a hoax; Song-thaek was murdered, but likely by firing squad.
Another student asked about rising tensions around the globe. “I’m in history class, and we’re always talking about how wars start,” the student said. “They seem to start when people start poking each other, start messing with each other, and they get out of hand.”
Johnson said that his interpretation of history is different: “What generally starts wars is when one party is weak. Bad people take advantage of weak people,” he said. “If you don’t want to get mugged, be a big ol’ strapping guy, heavily armed, and you’re probably not going to get mugged.”