Tony Evers. (Flickr/WisPolitics.com)
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced that he would use his upcoming budget to expand private-school voucher programs, even some Republican legislators objected.
But the loudest objection to Walker’s approach, and to the broader national push to shift taxpayer dollars away from public education and toward private experiments, came from Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. Evers, an educator who in 2009 was elected to lead the state's Department of Public Instruction, appeared before the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and in communities across Wisconsin to state that opposition. “This has to stop,” he said. “The state cannot continue to play favorites. We can and must meet our constitutional obligation to invest in all of our kids.”
Complaining that the previous Walker budget had cut $1.8 billion from public schools, Evers argued that it was wrong for the governor to use his 2013-15 state budget plan to essentially freeze public school funding while hiking spending for private voucher school students by as much as $1,400 each.
Staking out so clear a position in opposition to the governor’s agenda—not just on vouchers but on a host of education policy issues—was risky. Evers was up for reelection and he faced a determined challenge from Republican state Representative Don Pridemore, a steady supporter of Walker’s legislative agenda. The governor did not make an endorsement in the nonpartisan race and that miffed Pridemore, one of the most conservative members of the legislature. But the challenger's campaign was cheered on by the Republican Assembly Speaker, conservative radio hosts and activists.
A well-regarded and easy-going figure, Evers could easily have mounted a cautious campaign for the statewide post.
Instead, he campaigned across the state prior to Wisconsin’s April 2 statewide election with a message that Walker’s voucher scheme posed a threat to public education.
“This money isn’t coming from Madison. This money is coming directly from your school districts,” Evers told teachers and parents. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what the priority is here,” Evers said. “It’s not public schools. It’s voucher schools. It’s privatization, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.”
With a challenger campaigning as a proponent of vouchers—and charging that Evers was too closely aligned with educators and their unions, which backed the superintendent’s reelection—the race offered Wisconsinites what the Associated Press referred to as a “stark choice.”
Voters responded by giving Evers a 61-39 victory statewide.
“Today’s election offered voters a crystal clear choice between two very different philosophies about education,” the superintendent declared on election night. “Voters spoke loudly and clearly, affirming their commitment to Wisconsin’s strong public schools and calling for a much-needed reinvestment to support the over 870,000 public school kids in our state.”
Lisa Subeck, the executive director of the progressive grassroots group United Wisconsin argued that the election results should cause the governor to rethink.
“Evers ran on a pro-public education platform, and his victory sends a clear message that the voters of Wisconsin reject Governor Walker’s push to sink more public money into unaccountable private vouchers schools,” she said. “With the resounding defeat of pro-voucher candidate and GOP state representative Don Pridemore, the message to Scott Walker is clear. Walker should end his ideological march to expand his private school voucher program and restore funding to Wisconsin’s public schools.”
The governor may not waver. His positions are popular with conservative advocates at the national level, and it is no secret that he’s pondering a 2016 presidential run. But Republicans legislators, especially in the state Senate, have already raised concerns. Indeed, Senate President Mike Ellis says that a number of Republicans find the governor’s proposal “unacceptable.” Ellis says Walker’s proposal will be "drastically changed" during the budget debate.
How drastically remains to be seen. But Republican legislators who were disinclined to go along with Walker on the voucher issue—and the broader education-funding debate—will take comfort from the fact that, in a “stark choice” election, voters gave overwhelming support to the candidate who was outspoken in his defense of public education.
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