At Tony Evers’ inauguration last week, he repeated one of his central promises: that he would invest more in public education.
“We talked about what’s best for our kids is best for our state,” Evers said. “And that means we need to fully fund our public schools at every level.”
It’s a much different outlook for public schools than eight years ago, when Republican Scott Walker became governor. In his first year, he cut school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, things are moving in the opposite direction.
As state superintendent of schools, Evers sought a $1.4 billion increase to education funding over the next two years. As governor, he plans to propose a similar budget.
“I’ve never felt more hopeful about the investment in children, in public education in the state,” said Green Bay Area Schools Superintendent Michelle Lagenfeld.
Green Bay is one of many school districts that have resorted to voter referendums to fund basic operating costs.
Although Republicans went along with Walker’s education cuts, they now appear ready to cooperate with Evers on at least some of his school funding agenda.
“I don’t know if our dollar amounts are the same as his dollar amounts, but I’m hoping that this could be a good compromise area,” said Republican state Sen. Luther Olsen.
Olsen is co-chair of a bipartisan committee on school funding called the Blue Ribbon Commission that just released a raft of recommendations to better fund public schools. He expects education to be a higher priority than it was under Walker.
“Gov. Evers was state superintendent, he’s been in education his whole life,” Olsen said. “That is, I think, his main priority. Gov. Walker, he had many other priorities to deal with.”
Evers also wants to boost funding on the higher education side, for the UW system.
During Walker’s tenure, the Legislature cut university funding and imposed a tuition freeze. Evers plans to keep the tuition freeze but he wants to provide more state funding to make up for that lost revenue.
“I think tuition is too high … but the bottom line is, if we don’t have state resources, that gap gets larger and larger,” Evers said during a gubernatorial debate. “Fewer courses are offered, it’s going to take kids longer to get through college and it’s going to make their debt higher.”
The UW Board of Regents is seeking a 6 percent employee pay increase, for which Evers has signaled support.
One area Evers and Republicans are less likely to agree on is school choice, which flourished under Walker. Evers is opposed to using public dollars for private schools.
But Will Flanders says if Evers is truly a champion of kids that should include voucher students. Flanders is with the conservative advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
“Remember that there’s 35,000 kids that are using vouchers, that are using alternatives. And for those families, those seem to be the best means of education,” Flanders said. “So, let’s keep those kids in mind as we focus on creating a pro-kid environment in Wisconsin in the future.”
When asked last week what school choice proposals Evers had in store, his press office did not list any dramatic changes like phasing out vouchers. It said Evers would propose a requirement to show the cost of voucher programs on residents’ property tax bills.
That’s something the cities most saturated with voucher schools, Milwaukee and Racine, are already doing on their own.
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