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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Gov. Walker's Education Legacy & What An Evers Win Might Mean For Wisconsin's Schools

Education is at the forefront of Wisconsin’s close race for governor. Incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been calling himself ‘the education governor,’ while his Democratic challenger Tony Evers is the elected state superintendent.

How has Wisconsin’s education landscape changed under Walker? And if Evers were to unseat him, what would that mean for schools?

Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union, thinks Walker’s decisions around public education are coming back to haunt him in this race.

“This day was coming,” Mizialko said. “It’s been a long eight years for students in Wisconsin and specifically in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

She witnessed the impacts of Walker’s signature legislation: Act 10. The 2011 bill stripped public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, causing union membership to plummet. Act 10 was paired with significant cuts to education. 

READ: K-12 Policy On Minds Of Wisconsin Candidates For Governor

Beyond Act 10, Walker has left his mark on Wisconsin’s education landscape by paving the way for an expansion in school choice.

Before 2011, there were about 20,000 Milwaukee students using taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Under Walker, vouchers were extended beyond Milwaukee. Now, there are 40,000 students around the state participating in four parental choice programs.

Wisconsin Lutheran School in downtown Racine began enrolling voucher students in 2011. Now, more than 80 percent of the kindergarten through eighth graders attend Wisconsin Lutheran using vouchers.

Credit Emily Files
Students at Wisconsin Lutheran School in Racine participate in a devotional led by their teacher before heading to lunch. More than 80 percent of the students are enrolled using a Racine Parental Choice Program voucher. The program began under Gov. Scott Walker.

Paul Patterson, principal of Wisconsin Lutheran School, is worried about what might happen to school choice if Evers unseats Walker.  

“A lot of it is just fear on what is going to happen and where is the security,” Patterson said. “There are a lot of schools that joined the choice program that have exit strategies … Our school wouldn’t exist in the same form if the money went away.”

Evers has said he would like to ‘phase out’ school vouchers. If that’s not possible, Evers wants to impose more regulations on voucher schools.

That frustrates Jim Bender, the president of advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin. Bender says Evers doesn’t seem to consider the high-performing voucher schools that exist in places like Milwaukee.

“I wish he would approach education with a little bit broader scope than just that of public schools,” Bender said. “Because he’s going to represent everybody, not just students who sit in traditional public schools.”

Evers’ campaign has been more focused on supporting public schools than on rolling back school choice. As head of the Department of Public Instruction, Evers is proposing a $1.4 billion increase in education spending over two years.

Walker increased student spending in his most recent budget. But it wasn’t enough for some districts. That’s according to Dan Rossmiller, with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. His group advocates for public schools.

READ: Evers' Budget Plan Would Increase Education Spending By $1.4 Billion

“Many school districts are, for a variety of reasons, having to make due, doing the best they can with limited resources,” said Rossmiller. “But they’re stretched to the point where it’s a real question how long they’ll be able to continue doing that.”

Rossmiller says districts are hurting because of relatively stagnant state funding and spending limits that were imposed decades ago.

Both candidates are promising increases to school funding. That’s in line with public sentiment in favor of education spending, shown in recent Marquette Law School polls.

“This is somewhat of an unusual time,” Rossmiller said. “I can’t remember any time in my adulthood when we had two candidates for governor arguing over who was better for education.”

Even though education is a big topic in the governor’s race, some are disappointed by what they consider a lack of depth on the subject in the campaigns.

Isral DeBruin is with Milwaukee education nonprofit PAVE Schools That Can. He points out neither candidate has said much about the difficult question of how to deal with schools that fail to meet state expectations year after year.

“The job of a school is to prepare kids to be successful,” DeBruin said. “Frankly these are schools that are hurting kids. And right now, we’re saying ‘you can go to a school that will hurt you.’”

DeBruin says he expected more in a race between the state superintendent of schools and a candidate who calls himself the ‘education governor.’

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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