Wisconsin’s Hot Race for Governor: Unions, Common Core, and More

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 12, 2014 5 min read
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Since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a 2012 recall election, triggered by public-employee labor unions’ anger that he sucessfully pushed to squash most of their collective bargaining power, the GOP governor has only grown in political stature. He’s now mentioned by default as a presidential-candidate-in-waiting for Republicans.

Democrats in America’s Dairyland would like nothing better than to put Walker out to pasture before he even gets a White House run off the ground by ensuring that their candidate defeats Walker’s re-election bid on Nov. 4. Mary Burke, an executive at a bicycle-manufacturing company founded by her father and a member of the Madison school board, is favored to win the Aug. 12 Democratic primary against state Rep. Brett Hulsey.

First, let’s dispense with the polls. It’s clear that the presumed Burke-Walker race is a very close one. According to RealClearPolitics, the most recent aggregate of polls shows Walker with a lead of less than 1 percentage point. And Burke has been closing the gap since the spring:

But where does she stand on key K-12 issues?

Burke’s View on Collective Bargaining Rights

Act 10, the 2011 law that curbed most public-employee unions’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, is naturally a major focus during the election. Is Burke a full-throated foe of Walker’s signature accomplishment? Not quite.

On the one hand, Burke has been critical of the law in several public comments. She told reporters in April that Act 10 has led to “fewer people pursuing education as a career” in Wisconsin, a statement that PolitiFact Wisconsin rated as “mostly false.” Burke also told the Wisconsin State Journal that the portions of the law requiring annual elections for union recertification and prohibiting the automatic collection of union dues are “heavy-handed” and designed to simply punish unions. The state teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, endorsed her back in April.

When given the chance to walk the walk, Burke voted three months ago with the rest of the Madison school board to conduct labor talks with the teachers’ union—it’s worth noting here that the Madison union has sued to overturn Act 10.

And when asked last month by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd about the divisiveness of the 2012 recall election (see below), Burke responded that Walker was to blame because he “eliminated collective bargaining,” a statement that exaggerates Act 10’s impact on all unions:

But in that same interview with Todd, right after she criticized how Walker handled collective bargaining, she said: “I would have negotiated firmly, but fairly, for the changes that were needed.” That’s an apparent reference to Walker’s argument that Act 10 was crucial for stabilizing the state’s budget.

When she was pressed by Todd about whether that comment meant she agreed with the substance of Act 10, if not how it was passed, Burke pivoted to her aforementioned position that people were less attracted to teaching jobs in Wisconsin because of the new labor climate.

And the Wisconsin State Journal also reported that she does not simply want to repeal Act 10. The MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank in Wisconsin, slammed Burke for nominally opposing Act 10 but praising its merits and said she was naive for believing that the same benefits could have been obtained through traditional negotiations.

Stopping the Spread of Vouchers

When it comes to the state’s school choice program, Burke’s position is clearer.

On her campaign website, she says she opposes Wisconsin’s voucher program and, if elected, would stop it from expanding. She also pledged to “ensure that all private schools taking public dollars have real accountability measures in place.”

In 2013, Walker signed into law an expansion of the state’s voucher program. For many years the program was confined to Milwaukee and Racine, but the 2013 law allowed up to 500 students from districts outside those two cities to enroll in voucher programs in the 2013-14 school year. In 2014-15, that cap will expand to 1,000 students.

But because the Wisconsin legislature could remain in GOP hands at the start of 2015, and because vouchers have a long history in Wisconsin, Burke may not have the political muscle to eliminate the program entirely, despite her opposition.

Spending on Public Schools

Burke’s also pretty clear that she wants state aid to K-12 to grow on her watch. Under the “Fiscal Responsibility” section of her website, she decries the “historic cuts” made to public school budgets during Walker’s term, a reference to the $800 million cut to education in the budget he signed in 2011.

As it happens, Wisconsin spending on K-12 is going up. On July 1, the state Department of Public Instruction reported that general state aid to public schools will increase 2.1 percent from the 2013-14 school year to the 2014-15 school year—total state aid will clock in at a little more than $4.3 billion in 2014-15 if you count certain changes to the voucher program.

However, that’s not good news for all districts. Just over half of districts, 225 of 424 (53 percent), will get more state aid in 2014-15, the department reported, while the remaining 47 percent will see less help for their budgets.

Common Core Split

Finally, Burke got a chance to stake out clear opposition to Walker on another issue last month, when the governor announced that he wants state lawmakers to dump the Common Core State Standards. So did she take it?

Yes, she did. In a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel question-and-answer session about the standards, Burke said that if implemented correctly, the common core will fill the state’s needs for higher standards.

“Schools should have flexibility in implementation because every school is different. Let’s put the politics aside and put our young people’s futures first so Wisconsin becomes a thriving, top ten economy,” Burke told the newspaper.

Some district leaders have made it clear that they want the common core to stay in Wisconsin despite what Walker wants. And a group of about 100 superintendents and school board members rallied to support the standards at the state capital back in May.

To the extent that Burke can make common core a notable issue in the campaign, it could help her mobilize teachers and other school employees who fear that Walker’s anti-common-core push will succeed if he’s re-elected. It could also help her build bridges to unions that may not be entirely thrilled with her stance on Act 10.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.