Trump administration Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did not have her name on the ballot when Wisconsin voted on the future of public education earlier this month. But the DeVos agenda was up for consideration. And it lost.
Wisconsin, like a number of states, elects a top education officer. Wisconsin chooses its state superintendent of public instruction every four years in the spring election following the presidential vote. The Wisconsin contests are nonpartisan — reflecting the historic Wisconsin view that education policy is too important to be left to petty politics.
Unfortunately, over the past several decades DeVos has used her fortune to try to undermine the bipartisan commitment to public education as part of her advocacy for so-called "school choice" and "voucher" programs that seek to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools.
The DeVos interventions are not about improving public education; they are about pushing a political agenda that is rooted in ideological obsessions rather than an understanding of how to improve schools. As the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights noted with regard to DeVos: “She has never been an educator or worked directly with children and families in public schools. She has never led a school, district or state agency tasked with educating students. She has never been a public school parent or a public school student. This lack of experience makes her uniquely unfamiliar with the challenges and opportunities facing the nation’s students, families, educators and schools.”
DeVos and her ilk have succeeded in politicizing the education debate to such an extent that historically nonpartisan contests have seen clear divides between candidates who defend public education (and are often backed by Democrats, progressives and teacher unions) and candidates who align with the DeVos agenda (and who are often backed by Republicans, social conservatives and corporate interests that favor privatization).
The Wisconsin split this year was a clear one — with incumbent Superintendent Tony Evers running as a pro-public education candidate and challenger Lowell Holtz running as a pro-DeVos candidate.
Holtz was, to be sure, a flawed candidate; a primary rival claimed that he negotiated to quit the superintendent race in return for a $150,000-a-year job with a personal driver. But what was most flawed about Holtz was his embrace of DeVos and her agenda.
Holtz hailed Trump's selection of DeVos as a "positive development" and echoed her themes on the campaign trail.
EdWeek's state education blog summed things up: "Evers received a large amount of support from the state's teachers union and campaigned on increasing public school funding and building more wraparound services for the state's poor, black, and Latino students. ... Holtz ran on a campaign to ramp up the state's school accountability system and expand even more the state's voucher and charter school sector (and) received significant support from the state's Republican base and charter and voucher community."
Faced with a choice between a committed backer of public schools and a vouchers candidate who appeared to be more concerned about feathering his own nest than an education and equity agenda, Wisconsin sent a strong signal.
Evers won by a 70-30 margin.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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