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With a Schools Superintendent Running the State, What Lies Ahead for Wisconsin?

By Lisa Stark — November 07, 2018 5 min read
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, left, and lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes claim victory at their watch party, early Nov. 7, 2018, at the Orpheum Theater in Madison, Wis.
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Wisconsin’s top school official will now take over as that state’s governor, and that could mean increases in public school funding, along with better relations with teachers and organized labor.

State Superintendent Tony Evers, a Democrat who has been elected three times to that job, declared his victory in the very close race over incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, tweeting “A change is coming, Wisconsin.”

Evers’ supporters were ecstatic.

“An educator just showed Scott Walker the door, an educator showed a professional politician the door,” said Julie Underwood, a professor and former dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education.

The contest—which Evers ended up winning by just 1.16 percent, some 31,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million—attracted national attention and dollars, with President Donald Trump campaigning for Walker, and former President Barack Obama on the stump for Evers.

Dramatic Upset

Although the polls had indicated the race was neck and neck, Walker’s defeat was still stunning. He had appeared to be something of a political phoenix, not only winning twice for governor but also beating back a recall in 2012.

That recall effort came after Walker angered many in the state by doing away with collective bargaining rights for most public employees, including teachers.

During his two terms as governor, Walker also cut property taxes and slashed state funding, including money for schools. He became a darling of the tea party and launched a failed bid for the presidency in 2015.

Evers has been the state’s elected school superintendent for nine years and is anything but a polished politician. The mild-mannered 67-year-old, a former teacher and a cancer survivor, is hardly a rousing campaigner, but his message of more money for education and roads, and his support of the Affordable Care Act, apparently resonated with those who went to the polls.

Some of the vote was also clearly anti-Walker, as opposed to pro-Evers. Many teachers say they have felt demoralized and demonized by Walker, and the head of the state teachers’ union says he expects that to change.

“Evers realizes the way in which you return morale within the schools, within the teaching profession, is you make sure they have a voice at the table,” said Ron “Duff” Martin, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Marin said Walker “never reached out” to him in Marin’s three years heading the union.

Education funding was a key issue in this race. Walker boosted education dollars by $636 million in his most recent two-year budget and campaigned as “the education governor.” Evers argued the recent funding increase didn’t make up for deep cuts Walker enacted in earlier years and denounced the move as an election year “flash in the pan”.

During the campaign, Evers told Education Week, “People understand how important education is to not only our state’s economy but our state’s democracy. It’s a Wisconsin value,” he said, “it’s not a Democratic or Republic value. It’s what people want for their kids and grandkids.”

Evers has pledged to increase school funding by $1.4 billion, boost money for special education, and work to restore some of the bargaining rights teachers and other public workers lost under Walker’s leadership. He has not said how he will pay for his plan.

Challenges Ahead

Evers will have to work with a legislature controlled by Republicans, but under Wisconsin law, governors have broad discretion when it comes to proposing and crafting budgets. One local education official who asked to remain anonymous said, “If you’re Democratic or Republican and you ignore Tony Evers’ proposal for K-12 education, you do so at your own peril.”

Wisconsin polls have shown that the public broadly supports more money for public education. That’s clear from the 82 school referenda on the midterm ballot. It appeared as of last week that all but six had passed or were too close to call, meaning voters approved more than $1 billion in new taxes to fund their local public schools, according to The Wheeler Report, an online news service.

“Public education was at the center of this race from the start, and it was the clear winner” on election night, said Heather DuBois Bourenane, the executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Public Education Network.

One key question is what will happen to the state’s private school voucher program. Walker is a strong supporter of school choice and dramatically expanded vouchers. Enrollment has nearly doubled, to 40,000 students, and the number of private schools, most of them religious, accepting vouchers tripled during his tenure.

Evers has indicated he wants to freeze voucher enrollment. But Jim Bender, the president of School Choice Wisconsin, doesn’t see that happening. He points out that undoing the voucher program would require a change in state law. Bender said the top GOP lawmakers in the legislature are strong supporters of school choice. “The current law is very good for us,” Bender said. “We will still very much be in a growth mode.”

Bender also questioned how Evers will pay for all the extra dollars he wants to put into public education. “Most of his policy proposals in the campaign were pretty vague,” Bender said.

Evers’ supporters insist it’s feasible given the state’s booming economy and if the new governor shifts priorities away from corporate tax cuts. “It is doable with the resources of the state of Wisconsin if you value investing in children,” said Underwood of UW-Madison.

For now, those who have been fighting against Walker are celebrating his loss and Evers’ victory. Bill Dunn has been a longtime participant in a daily singing protest at the state capitol targeting Walker and state legislators. “How can an Evers administration not be a positive force for education, given his three decades of experience in public education?” he asked.

Related Video

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker became a conservative hero after he slashed state spending, including for schools, and weakened teacher unions.

The Associated Press contributed to this reporting.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Changes Ahead as Wisconsin K-12 Chief Wins Governor’s Seat

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