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Governor-elect Tony Evers taking a tour of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County on Wednesday. Evers is a former teacher and principal, and soon-to-be former state school's chief. File photo by Steve Apps of the Wisconsin State Journal. 

After what one teacher described as a “a long slog” for public schools under the eight-year administration of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, public school teachers and advocates felt optimistic watching one of their own — Tony Evers — defeat Walker Tuesday night.

“It was exciting knowing that Tony was a lifelong educator,” said Reshanna Lenoir-Beckfield, a third-grade teacher at Olson Elementary School, a Madison School District school located in Verona. “We really wanted Walker gone for a long time.”

Lenoir-Beckfield said Evers' commitment to more special education funding would help her school in particular, which she said had to cut hours for special education assistants due to tightened budgets. 

Evers, a former teacher, principal and soon-to-be former state schools superintendent, featured education issues heavily in his campaign message.

Public education advocates, including the Wisconsin and Madison teachers unions, said they saw more engagement and enthusiasm about the governor’s race this year than in Walker’s previous re-election campaign in 2014 and recall in 2012.

“We’re thrilled to see a brand new day for Wisconsin filled with hope and optimism,” said Doug Keillor, the executive director of Madison Teachers Inc.

The governor’s race wasn’t the only place voters made their voice heard on education issues. A total of 82 referendums were on the ballot Tuesday, according to the Department of Public Instruction, with 77 passing.

Evers also was not the first Walker challenger to have experience in public education. Mary Burke, the current president of the Madison School Board, was the 2014 Democratic nominee. Some advocates said Evers’ campaign was different in part because he made education central to his campaign message, as opposed to Burke’s focus on her experience as an executive at Trek Bicycle.

“I don’t think there was as vigorous of a campaign around education in 2014 as much in 2018 by a longshot,” Heather DuBois Bourenane, the executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said. “Part of it was that the full impact of the policies of the last eight years were not felt as much.”

Burke declined to comment for this story.

Ron Martin, the president of the Wisconsin Education Advisory Council, said members of the statewide union were more engaged in this election than 2014 as well.

“People had just got upset and had enough of the talk of destroying our public schools,” Martin said.

That frustration turned into elation among many educators Wednesday after Evers was projected to win the election and Walker officially conceded.

“It was amazing to be able to wake up the next day and look at my fellow teachers’ faces in the building and just see the sense of relief and happiness we all had,” Kristin Brown, a math teacher at Madison East High School, said.

Brown said that during the past two years, she felt traumatized by the national and statewide political landscape.

“It felt like I had no ability to affect change and that there was no hope,” she said.

But after what started with protests in response to the passage of Act 10 in 2011 reached what some teachers have described as “a new hope.”

“The biggest thing that this election did was provide a measure of hope,” said Eric Behm, high school social studies teacher in the Wisconsin Dells School District who was active during the Act 10 protests and wrote a viral open letter to Walker. “It’s so reassuring to know the person in the governor’s seat is someone who seems to value public education and the people who try to provide it.”

That sentiment was seemingly shared by Madison School District officials as well.

“We believe the results of the election show that our state is ready for a reinvestment in public education, and we’re incredibly encouraged by that,” MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said in a statement.

But in an election that vaulted state Democrats back into political relevance, public education advocates acknowledge Evers’ win faces a stark reality: divided government.

Republicans held on to a strong majority in both the state Senate and Assembly, and will likely serve as a roadblock to much of Evers’ plans for K-12 education. This reality brings hope for school choice advocates who saw expansions to the Wisconsin Parental Choice program under Walker.

“Current law will likely rule the day,” said Jim Bender, the president of School Choice Wisconsin. “Any real changes to the state’s education system would have to be a compromise between the Legislature and Tony Evers. You’re not going to have the ability to get big, bold initiatives either way.”

One of those big initiatives? School vouchers. Evers said during the campaign he would seek to phase out school vouchers, a signature hallmark of the conservative education reform movement that provides subsidies to low- and middle-income students. The Milwaukee and Racine school districts each have their own voucher programs, and there is a statewide voucher program.

That plan is almost certain not to pass, as much of the Republican leadership was lock-step with Walker’s efforts to expand funding for the programs.

The amount of students eligible for the parental choice program, which in 2016-17 was limited to no more than one percent of a district’s prior year membership, is set to increase by one percent each year until 2026. Starting with the 2026-27 school year, no enrollment limit would apply.

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Bender said he foresees the trend of the programs being funded continuing, but that there likely won’t be any expansion beyond that or an elimination.

“We’re talking about nearly 30,000 students in Milwaukee, which are often low-income or minority students, who would be kicked out of their schools,” said CJ Szafir, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, on the possibility of Evers trying to overhaul the voucher programs entirely.  

Evers’ proposal for the next budget, introduced during the campaign, also called for $1.6 billion more in state funding for public schools than the current budget allocates. It called for restoring a state commitment to fund two-thirds of the cost of public education, which could potentially be an area for legislators to work with the incoming Democratic administration.

Walker proposed similar levels of funding.

“There’s going to be the question of where this additional money will be coming from,” Szafir said. “Because even if Republicans go along with more funding, they aren’t going to want to take that money from vouchers.”

In addition to more general funding, Evers proposed increased special education funding, which advocates hope is an area for common ground.

“Definitely having more special education funding has to be number one on the agenda,” DuBois Bourenane said. “I think there are going to be some opportunities for bipartisan support.”

But Szafir said conservatives need to be ready for anything from Evers.

“There are opportunities to work together on issues that might be smaller in scale,” Szafir said. “But if we go past the prologue here, it seems like it’s incredibly unlikely. Education reform advocates should prepare for the worst.”

Even though gridlock is likely, teachers said they feel more hopeful about their work and more respected under Evers.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. At least there’s someone in the executive branch that has our back and has our background,” Behm said. “Trying to convince yourself that your profession has value when members of your government basically said it has no value is hard.”

Regardless of how drastically Evers will actually be able to change K-12 education issues, public education advocates said they believe that education as an issue came to the forefront in 2018 more so than previous years.

“From these results, education is a winner by a landslide,” DuBois Bourenane said. “This was more than a referendum on Act 10. It was really about putting our kids first and there was energy and excitement in this election among educators, parents and school board members to do just that.”

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.