In the face of 10 Democrats gunning for his job, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has decided to embrace an issue typically owned by the opposing party: education.
"I’m being aggressive on this," Walker said in an interview. "We’re proclaiming proudly that I'm the pro-education governor and that I want to continue to be the pro-education governor."
Walker on Tuesday will release a statewide television ad following the style of several others released since the launch of his re-election campaign: a testimony from someone else, followed by a message from the governor.
The latest ad features an elementary school special education teacher from Racine named Anita.
"I can tell you one size does not fit all when it comes to our kids. And Gov. Walker gets it. He gave schools flexibility to put money where it matters most, in our classroom. And his latest budget adds $200 more per year for every student," the teacher says in the ad.
The flexibility the teacher references is Walker's signature Act 10 legislation, which eliminated most public employees' collective bargaining rights and required them to pay more into their pensions and health insurance premiums.
The law, which sparked massive protests at the state Capitol in 2011, is one most Democratic candidates for governor have said they would repeal if elected.
"They say they’re pro-education because they’re going to repeal Act 10. That shows they’re pro-education special interest, pro-education bureaucracy," Walker said. "We're pro-education in the sense that we want performance, improved resources. We want to reward excellent teachers. We want real results."
Walked argued that undoing Act 10 would make it more difficult to send resources directly to classrooms, to reward exceptional teachers and to fire those who aren't up to par.
Several Democratic gubernatorial candidates, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, have said they would restore collective bargaining rights but would support continuing to require public employees to contribute toward their health insurance and retirement costs, while others have said they would repeal it entirely.
Evers, in his role as state superintendent, initially praised Walker's 2017-19 budget proposal, which included a $649 million boost for K-12 schools, as a "pro-kid budget."
"He was singing our praises," Walker said. "Now that he’s a candidate — he was for it, before he was against it."
Evers argued that the reason he praised Walker's budget was because it included measures Evers himself had proposed.
"After slashing and burning public education for three budgets and heading into a tough re-election, Scott Walker adopted my budget, a tidbit that magically won't make it into his campaign ads," Evers said in a statement. "He's been digging a hole in education for years. Now he's throwing a little dirt in and calling it full."
Walker countered that Democrats also cut education funding, but without giving local school boards the ability to make cost-saving changes like bidding out for health insurance providers.
Echoing a point he first made in his address to the Republican Party of Wisconsin state convention last month, Walker said his goal, should he be re-elected to a third term, is to make Wisconsin the top state for high school graduation rates in the United States.
The key to accomplishing that, he said, is engaging students early in their education for career preparation. One way to do that, he said, is to expand state-funded youth apprenticeship programs from high school to middle school students.
"All of these things are not only about student success but also about getting our students ready for the abundance of careers that we have," Walker said, noting the state's 2.8 percent unemployment rate.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman TJ Helmstetter dinged Walker's ad as an "election-year ploy to rewrite history."
"Walker has delivered massive giveaways to foreign corporations, his rich donors, and unaccountable private schools, while shortchanging our kids and attacking our teachers," Helmstetter said in a statement.